France Upholds Ban on Burqas

Read through Sara Lone’s analysis below and then take our poll – do you agree with the ban?

On July 1, France declared victory when the European Court of Human Rights upheld a ban on wearing full-face veils in public. The ban was introduced in 2010 and weaved its way through the French Parliament with near-unanimous support.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented his opinion on the issue in a speech to Parliament, the first time a president had addressed that body since Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1800’s. In his speech Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subjugation, of the submission, of women  .… I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory … in the republic, the Muslim religion must be respected like other religions, but, the burqa is not welcome in France.…We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity.” These views were not held solely by Sarkozy; although France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe (estimated at 5 million), Pew results from a 2010 poll revealed that 82 percent of the French population approved of a ban on Muslim women wearing full face veils in public.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established in January of 1959 to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights and has been recognized by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. Based largely on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ECHR contains articles and protocols concerning basic human rights such as the right to life, liberty, security, fair trials, privacy, religion, expression, and marriage. Individuals are also protected from slavery, torture, and discrimination under the protocols and articles. The European Court of Human Rights is similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the Supreme Court is the highest and final authority for U.S. states, as is the European Court of Human Rights for grievances found within the forty-seven European member states.

After France’s ban on wearing a full veil was enforced in 2011, a twenty-four-year-old woman, identified only as “S.A.S.” in court documents, challenged the ban, alleging it was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The arguments on behalf of France in support of the ban held that women’s freedom and dignity take precedence over religious practices, and wearing a burqa is frequently believed to be “forced” by men and therefore infringing on women’s rights. National security was also an issue that requires individuals to have their faces be visible. And it was argued that France is a secular, democratic society where citizens must respect the minimum requirements of life in society (“living together”) and the face is vital to social interactions in society. The nation has stayed consistent in its desire to be secular; in 2004 France enacted a law banning the Islamic head scarf and any other religious symbols such as Jewish skullcaps and large crosses in schools.

The “applicant” (plaintiff) in this recent case, S.A.S., claimed human rights violations regarding four articles from the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 8) right to respect for private and family life; Article 9) freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; Article 10) freedom of expression; and Article 14) prohibition of discrimination. According to the ECHR press release, S.A.S. asserted that the ban was discriminatory on grounds of sex, religion, and ethnic origin, to the detriment of the estimated 2,000 women in France who were wearing the full-face veil.

The court came down almost entirely on the side of France with a majority finding no violation of Article 8 or 9 and unanimously seeing no violation of Article 14. The court also pointed out that the penalties for wearing a full-face veil were “among the lightest that could have been envisaged: a fine of 150 euros maximum and the possible obligation to follow a citizenship course, in addition to or instead of the fine.” The court decided overwhelmingly that the ban be regarded as a legitimate way to preserve the conditions of “living together” and accepted that the barrier raised by the full-face veil, completely concealing the face, was breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization, therefore making “living together” more difficult.

To date, Belgium is the only other country with a ban on the full-face veil, but with this recent ECHR decision more bans could be enacted in other European countries. The same Pew poll referenced earlier reported that 71 percent of the German population approves of a ban, 62 percent in Britain, and 59 percent in Spain. Comparatively, the United States only had a 28 percent approval rating for a ban and a 65 percent disapproval rating.

The September/October 2010 issue of the Humanist magazine published two articles on France’s burqa ban, pro and con, and both from a humanist perspective.

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