France bans Muslim full-face veil

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France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim population, banned the wearing of full-face veils in public Monday, despite threats of protest from a group that already feels stigmatized.

The draconian new law, the first of its kind to be enforced in Europe, was immediately broken by a young woman from the southern city of Avignon, who has become the media symbol of France's tiny community of niqab wearers.

"I had been invited to take part in a television program which I am going for and I find that today is April 11, the first day of the application of the ban," Kenza Drider, 32, told reporters before boarding a train for Paris.

"This law infringes my European rights, I cannot but defend them that is to say my freedom to come and go and my religious freedom," the voluntary worker and mother-of-four said. "This law breaches these rights."

Drider's husband Allal said: "According to this law, my wife would have to remain cloistered at home, do you find that normal? She has been wearing a veil for 13 years and it has not shocked anyone."

Rights groups plan to protest against the ban on central Paris on Monday, and a businessman has announced that he will auction off a two-million-euro property to raise funds to pay any fines imposed on veil-wearers.

Other countries plan to ban the burqa and the niqab but France is the first to risk stirring tensions by putting one into practice.

The law came into effect at an already fraught moment in relations between the state and France's Muslim minority, with President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of stigmatizing Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far right.

French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veils that are traditional in parts of Arabia and South Asia.

But many Muslims and rights watchdogs accuse the rightwing president of targeting one of France's most vulnerable groups to signal to anti-immigration voters that he shares their fear that Islam is a threat to French culture.

On Saturday police arrested 59 people, including 19 veiled women, who turned up for a banned protest in Paris, while two more were detained as they attempted to travel to the rally from Britain and Belgium.

Some argue the law may be hard to enforce, since it had to be drawn up without reference to religion to ban any kind of face covering in public and since police officers will not be allowed to remove women's head coverings.

Anyone refusing to lift his or her veil to submit to an identity check can be taken to a police station. There, officers must try to persuade them to remove the garment, and can threaten fines.

A woman who repeatedly insists on appearing veiled in public can be fined 150 euros (US$216) and ordered to attend re-education classes.

There are much more severe penalties for anyone found guilty of forcing someone else to hide his or her face "through threats, violence, constraint, abuse of authority or power for reason of their gender."

Clearly aimed at fathers, husbands or religious leaders who force women to wear face-veils, and applicable to offences committed in public or in private, the law imposes a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.

Foreign extremists, including fugitive Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden have used the ban to argue France is at war with Islam, and have urged attacks.

Belgium's parliament has approved a similar law, but has yet to enforce it. In the Netherlands far-right leaders have proposed a ban, and in Italy the right-wing Northern League is lobbying for a ban on the French model.

It is hard to gauge the mood of the bulk of veil wearing French Muslim women, but two who agreed to speak to AFP -- who gave their names as Aya and Umm Isra -- said they would not challenge the ban in the street.

But, they added, if they can't wear their niqabs they will likely go out far less often, suggesting the ban could create a hidden underclass.

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