European Court upholds French full veil ban

The French full veil ban upheld was upheld by the European court

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The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a ban by France on wearing the Muslim full-face veil - the niqab.

A case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman, who argued that the ban on wearing the veil in public violated her freedom of religion and expression.

French law says nobody can wear in a public space clothing intended to conceal the face. The penalty for doing so can be a 150-euro fine (£120; $205).

The 2010 law came in under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A breach of the ban can also mean a wearer having to undergo citizenship instruction.

France has about five million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe - but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils.

PDF download ECHR ruling[116KB]

The court ruled that the ban "was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face". The Strasbourg judges' decision is final - there is no appeal against it.

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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A court statement said the ruling also "took into account the state's submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction".

"The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question."

Some face coverings, including motorbike helmets, are exempted from the French ban.

The woman, identified only by the initials SAS, took her case to the European Court in 2011. She said she was under no family pressure to wear the niqab, but chose to do so as a matter of religious freedom, as a devout Muslim.

Niqab wearer - file pic There are calls beyond France too for public wearing of the niqab to be banned
France sets precedent

France was the first European country in modern times to ban public wearing of the full-face veil. Belgium adopted a similar ban in 2011.

In Spain, the city of Barcelona and some other towns have brought in similar bans, as have some towns in Italy.

No such general ban applies in the UK, but institutions have discretion to impose their own dress codes.

The French government argues that the ban has wide public support. The authorities see the full-face veil not only as an affront to French secular values but also as a potential security risk, as it conceals a person's identity.

In the past, the European Court has sided with French secularism - it also ruled in favour of the government's ban on headscarves in schools.

But in 2010, the judges did find against Turkey, ruling that religious garments were not in themselves a threat to public order.

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Exemptions from ban on public face covering
  • Motorcycle helmets
  • Face masks for health reasons
  • Face covering for sporting or professional activities
  • Sunglasses, hats etc which do not completely hide the face
  • Masks used in "traditional activities", such as carnivals or religious processions

Source: Radio France International

The Islamic veil across Europe

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