French burqa ban doesn't breach rights, rules Strasbourg

Photo / File / Thinkstock
Photo / File / Thinkstock

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld France's ban on wearing a burqa or a niqab in public, ruling that a 2010 law on religious headgear does not breach Muslim women's human rights.

The Strasbourg court ruled in the case brought by a British legal team acting for a devout French Muslim that there had been no violation of her right to respect private and family life, her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and no breach of the prohibition of discrimination.

France has the largest Muslim community in western Europe, estimated at around five million, and some of the continent's most restrictive laws about expressions of faith in public.

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It was the first European country to pass a law banning veils that conceal the face in public.

Belgium later followed.

The plaintiff, identified only by her initials SAS, had described herself as a 24-year-old female graduate who is a "devout Muslim and she wears the burqa and niqab in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions". She insisted that "neither her husband nor any other member of her family puts pressure on her to dress in this manner".

In an unusual move, the French woman was represented by British lawyers.

Ramby de Mello, a barrister based in Birmingham and London, presented a case in Strasbourg brought by a Birmingham-based solicitor, Sanjeev Sharma, a partner at JM Wilson Solicitors. In 2011, Mr de Mello represented a French Muslim couple who claimed they had been forced to move to the UK by the burka ban. The couple used the now-defunct taxpayer-funded Immigration Advisory Service to pay for their pounds 10,000 compensation claim.

Mr Sharma last night denied that the current case was paid for by British taxpayers through legal aid. "In terms of funding all I can say is that it wasn't funded by legal aid," he said.

But he refused to clarify how her case was funded, leading to speculation that some funding could have come from British taxpayers indirectly, through grants given to human rights organisations based in this country.

Mr Sharma added: "She has family in Birmingham and they recommended us to her."

He told The Daily Telegraph that his client was disappointed with the outcome of the case and warned that minorities could be threatened by the ruling, which gave priority to harmony within the community, over freedom of dress.

"The rights of minorities may in future give way to the wider public interest of living together in harmony," he said. "In this sense, this judgment potentially has farther reaching consequences than simply the burka ban."

The French law, which carries a fine of €150 or lessons in French citizenship for those found wearing a veil in public, was brought in under Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative former president, and is backed by the current Socialist administration of Francois Hollande.

Authorities say religious veils are degrading to women, an affront to France's secular traditions, and a security risk as they prevent the accurate identification of individuals.

The European court accepted the French government's argument that the veil ban was justified in the interests of social cohesion, but dismissed the argument of public safety.

The ban has caused tensions within France's Muslim community. There were riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes last summer after a man was arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer who stopped his wife for wearing a veil.

The judgment was criticised by James A. Goldston, the executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, as a failure to protect women's rights.

"Coming at a time when hostility to ethnic and religious minorities is on the rise in many parts of Europe, the court's decision is an unfortunate missed opportunity to reaffirm the importance of equal treatment for all and the fundamental right to religious belief and expression," he said.

"The majority has failed adequately to protect the rights of many women who wish to express themselves by what they wear."

- Meet Souad, a young Muslim from Paris -

For Souad, a 21-year-old Muslim from the Paris region who wears a full face veil, social and professional life has been radically reduced since the French ban on wearing the niqab or burqa in public came into effect in 2011.

"I can no longer walk down the Champs Elysees on a Saturday afternoon like anyone else," she told The Telegraph. "On a sunny day you can't enjoy the park like others.

"There are so many things I can no longer do," she said, adding that she avoided as much as possible going out in public as she wants to remain true to her convictions.

"From the moment you choose to wear the full veil in this country you are going to lose a certain amount of liberty. I see this as a daily injustice."

Souad, who is unmarried and without children, said she had to give up her studies because she could no longer wear her veil. Now, working as a childminder, she wears her veil as she drives to work - cars are seen as a private space - and then removes it when she enters the workplace.

"You often hear in Europe that women's freedom is very important but this is a law that is against women's liberty. It is a personal choice, a life choice, and that is where I see my liberty infringed."

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