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Europe’s Burqa Ban Shocks French Muslims

Published: 02/07/2014 03:47:44 PM GMT
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CAIRO – A decision by Europe’s top rights court to uphold a French ban on Islamic full-face niqab has been criticized as shocking by rights organization and Muslim women after the court accepted Paris’s argument that it encouraged citizens to live together . The ban has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with ris...(more)

CAIRO – A decision by Europe’s top rights court to uphold a French ban on Islamic full-face niqab has been criticized as shocking by rights organization and Muslim women after the court accepted Paris’s argument that it encouraged citizens to "live together".

The ban "has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with rising racism in western Europe," Shami Chakrabarti, director of the UK human rights pressure group Liberty, told The Guardian.

"How do you liberate women by criminalizing their clothing? If you suspect bruises under a burqa, why punish the victim, and if you disapprove of the wearer's choices, how does banishing her from public engagement promote liberal attitudes?"

Introduced in 2010, the law, active in France and Belgium and known as the "burqa ban", makes it illegal for anyone to "cover their face" in a public place.

Tuesday's case at the European court of human rights (ECHR) to challenge the ban was brought by a 24-year-old Frenchwoman, who was not named but was described as being of Pakistani origin, who wore the burqa.

Representing the woman, British solicitors from Birmingham claimed that outlawing of the veil was contrary to six articles of the European convention on human rights.

They argued, "inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory"

Lawyers for the French government had argued at the court in Strasbourg that the ban applied also to balaclavas and hoods.

The court admitted the general ban could appear to be an overreaction to a small problem and said it was "extremely worried" by the Islamophobic declarations made during the parliamentary debate.

"This ban has a very strong negative impact on the situation of women who have made the choice of wearing the full veil for reasons linked to their beliefs," the judges said, adding that the legislation had "risked contributing to and consolidating stereotypes affecting certain categories of people and encouraging expressions of intolerance".

The European judges decided otherwise, declaring that the preservation of a certain idea of "living together" was the "legitimate aim" of the French authorities.

“Live in Peace”

After the court announcement, French women donning niqab were in a shock over the upsetting decision.

"I am so upset. So upset. I didn't expect the court to lift the ban, but I hoped they would modify the law,” law student Stéphanie Lécuyer, 39, who lives in Nice with her daughter, and who wears a niqab in public after converting to Islam 21 years ago, said.

"Perhaps now is not the time to comment. It's all too raw and emotional. I'm still in shock. I've been wearing the niqab for many years and all I want is to live in peace. It's never been an obstacle for me in my life. I know the clothing is not seen as moderate, but I am very moderate.

"If I go somewhere and need to show my face for security reasons, I do so. It really has never been a problem. Surely there are more important things happening in the world, terrible things in the name of religion, some of those things in the name of Islam, but all more important than this?"

Izza Leghtas, a researcher on western Europe for Human Rights Watch, said the judgment was disappointing.

"Bans like this undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect those who are compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights to freedom of religion and expression," Leghtas said.

Jonathan Birchall, of the Open Society Foundations established by the billionaire financier George Soros, said: "We are all rather shocked by today's burqa ban ruling … the court seems to have invented a new legal concept to justify the ban."

He said German and Swedish judges at the ECHR had already made "scathing" rulings on the living-together concept, declaring it "far-fetched and vague".

"The concept of living together does not fall directly under any of the rights and freedoms guaranteed within the (human rights) convention," they wrote.

"It is true that 'living together' requires the possibility of interpersonal exchange. It is also true that the face plays an important role in human interaction. But this idea cannot be turned around, to lead to the conclusion that human interaction is impossible if the full face is not shown.

"This is evidenced by examples that are perfectly rooted in European culture, such as the activities of skiing and motorcycling with full-face helmets and the wearing of costumes in carnivals. Nobody would claim that in such situations (which form part of the exceptions provided for in the French law) the minimum requirements of life in society are not respected. People can socialize without necessarily looking into each other's eyes."

France is home to a Muslim minority of six millions, Europe’s largest.

The French obsession with the Muslim veil in all its forms is partly rooted in the country’s attachment to secularism.

Over the past decade, France has passed a number of controversial laws restricting the wearing of religious symbols in public areas.

In 2004, France banned Muslims from wearing hijab, an obligatory code of dress, in public places. Several European countries followed the French example.

France also outlawed the wearing of face-veil in public in 2011.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said recently the ban was "a law against practices that have nothing to do with our traditions and our values".

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