European Rights Court to Rule on French Burqa Ban

June 30, 2014  

Europe’s top rights court will rule Tuesday whether France’s controversial burqa ban is “degrading” and a breach of religious freedom in a case brought by a woman described as a “perfect French citizen”.

The 24-year-old university graduate has requested anonymity because of concern over the reaction to her lawsuit in France, where the law banning full-face veils in public spaces was approved in 2010 under former president Nicolas Sarkozy and has been fully backed by the current Socialist government.

The woman, identified only by her initials S.A.S., and her British legal team are seeking to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to categorize the French law as essentially discriminatory.

The defendant – who also has family in Britain’s second city of Birmingham – argues that the ban violates her rights to freedom of religion, expression and assembly, and is also discriminatory.

She is a “perfect French citizen with university education,” her British lawyer Tony Muman told the European court at a hearing last year. “She speaks of her country with passion… She is a patriot,” Muman had said.

He quoted his client as saying that being forced to take off her veil in public constituted “degrading treatment” and also was an attack on her private and family life.

In written evidence, S.A.S. — who has shunned appearances in court so far – has testified that she is not constrained to wear the burqa by any man and that she is willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons, directly addressing the French authorities’ two main arguments in favor of the ban.

Under the French law, which was officially implemented in 2011, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to 150 euros ($205). Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France’s lead and similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.

Ban sparked riots

Attempts to enforce the legislation have proved problematic and sometimes sparked confrontations, such as riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes last year.

The hearing comes just days after one of France’s highest courts upheld the 2008 sacking of Fatima Afif, a worker at a kindergarten in the Paris suburbs, for wanting to wear a headscarf to work.

Overt religious symbols – headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or Sikh turbans for example – are banned from French state schools, which operate on strictly secular lines.

Also on Tuesday, an appeals court in Versailles outside Paris will hear the case of the husband of a veiled woman whose violent intervention during a police ID check on his spouse earned him a three-month suspended prison sentence.

France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe. Apart from the veil issue, there has been controversy in the past over whether schools and holiday camps should be required to provide halal food for Muslim children.

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