Europe

French Senate votes to ban Islamic full veil in public

A Muslim woman in full face veil holds up her French passport at a conference near Paris, May 2010
Image caption The bill envisages fines of 150 euros for women wearing the full veil

France's Senate has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public.

The proposed measure was already backed by the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, in July.

The ban will come into force in six months' time if it is not overturned by constitutional judges.

The ban has strong public support, but critics point out that only a tiny minority of French Muslims wear the full veil.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has backed the ban as part of a wider debate on French identity but opponents say the government is pandering to far-right voters.

Muslim headscarves

The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. These scarves come in myriad styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.
The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.
The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and an accompanying tube-like scarf.
The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.
The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.
The chador, worn by many Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
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Spain and Belgium are debating similar legislation, and with such large-scale immigration in the past 20 or 30 years, identity has become a popular theme across Europe, correspondents say.

Council's warning

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 246 to 1 in favour of the bill.

It will be now sent immediately to France's Constitutional Council watchdog, which has a month to confirm its legality.

Another challenge is possible at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where decisions are binding.

There are estimated to be only about 2,000 women wearing the full veil in France.

The bill makes it illegal to wear garments such as the niqab or burka, which incorporate a full-face veil, anywhere in public.

It envisages fines of 150 euros (£119) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka.

The niqab and burka are widely seen in France as threats to women's rights and the secular nature of the state.

The bill is also seen as a touchstone for the Mr Sarkozy administration's policy of integration. It is grappling with disaffected immigrant communities as it seeks to prevent a repeat of the mass unrest of 2005 on run-down French housing estates.

In March, the Council of State, France's highest administrative body, warned that the law could be found unconstitutional.

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