Share & Connect
As of April 11, it has been made illegal for women in France to cover their faces with veils in public and police could confirm, on the same day, that the first penalty had been issued. The ban is the first of its kind in Europe and has been under severe criticism for stigmatizing an already vulnerable group in the French society. France hosts the largest Muslim population in Western Europe of around six million people and of these, the government estimates that between 1000 to 2000 women wear the niqab or burka. A woman caught wearing the face-covering veil will be fined and required to take reeducation classes. She could also be subjected to further investigation since the person found to have forced her to cover up risks a €25.000 fine and possible jail sentence, according to details from the BBC.
On the day of the law’s enactment, the first fine was issued to a 27-year-old woman in Paris. She was stopped at a shopping centre and issued a ticket to pay a €150 fine or sign up for citizenship lessons within a month. According to the BBC, a woman who refuses to remove her veil in public when it has been deemed necessary should be escorted to a police station for identification. The guidelines state that police should not force women to remove their veils in the street.
The veil ban was pushed through by the government of Sarkozy who argue that “the face-covering veil undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society and also relegates its wearers to an inferior status incompatible with French notions of equality”, according to the BBC. Posters have been put up all over France to remind veil-clad women that “the Republic lives with its face uncovered” but it has to be said that the controversial law does not directly specify the Islamic practice. For some, the ban is a welcomed counter action to the idea that the veil encourage segregation and promotes the inequality of women. Sihem Habchi, a Muslim woman who worked on the new law, told a Newsbeat reporter that “It’s because it’s a minority we need to act,” and continued “Five years ago hardly anyone wore the niqab. In another five years we will be like England where there are neighbourhoods and ghettos full of women wearing them.”
However, others are critical of the effectiveness of the ban. One argument is that the law is superfluous, causing more harm to the small minority than it does protecting the rights of women. Dheepthi Namasivayam in the Herald Sun explains that some have vowed to defy the law: “I will not obey it,” said Wahiba Mebrek, a resident from north of the French capital. “I will only respect laws of the French Republic which are not in contradiction with me, my religion and my faith.” The 25-year-old is angry at the perceived image that women who wear the face veil are oppressed. According to the article, “it was a conscious decision, made by her and husband when they became devout Muslims eight years ago.”
The question for the future is how the French society will cope with the question of assimilation versus integration. Is this the calm before the storm of a greater culture clash? From perspectives, both within and outside of the French Republic, the issue is muddy; Is freedom the right to express your religion and cultural heritage on your own body? Or is freedom the promotion of equal rights for all, regardless of the individual’s preferences? Whether freedom is a matter of the state or the citizen, the French veil ban could be an estimate on how the European countries are going to tackle the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ in the near future.