The Real Toll of the French Veil Ban on Muslim Women


French law against fully covering veils continues to raise controversy, as clashes between Muslim groups and the police make headlines in local and national newspapers.

Recently, an 18-year-old woman refused to remove her veil when the police asked her to in Roubaix, on the Belgium border. Reports say she shouted and fought, and ended up in jail. She will appear in court next October.

Similarly, last July, an identification check on a fully veiled woman turned into a fight in Marseilles. Four people were held back, and trial is scheduled for September.

France became the first country to ban the use of veils in public spaces in April 2011. The law – which prohibits women to wear niqab and burqas, passed under former president Nicolas Sarkozy who stated that religious face veils were “not welcomed in France.” The regulation affected some 2000 veiled women living in France.

Belgium followed suit with a similar law in July 2011. And other countries such as Italy and Netherlands are considering the idea, as France sticks to it. During the elections, the then candidate François Hollande promised to uphold the law if elected.

In Sarkozy’s words the regulation was passed “to protect women from being forced to cover their faces.” That's why women’s rights groups are supporting the ban. Last April, Le Figarò reported that 300 women were stopped, questioned or fined following this law. No man was questioned. But sanctions go from a €30,000 fine to jail time -- for whoever forces a woman to cover her face.

Other supporters of the regulation say it is a security measure and ensures people can be identified The safety issue can only be read between the lines of the first article of the draft written in July 2010 that reads, “No one can wear clothing intended to conceal his face, in public.”

Despite from undermining religious rights, as the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated, the French law is unsuccessful for the following reasons. 

Firstly, assuming the law sincerely aims to empower women, one might ask why women are the ones paying for it -- and not only metaphorically. Fines for wearing a niqab or burqa start from €150 and the costs of going through trial orbit around €3000.

Another issue is the safety of women in the households in case they are forced to wear the veil. Forcing to cover the face “by threat, violence, coercion, abuse of power or because of the sex” is punishable by law. But to discover these cases women would have to speak out. This is more likely to happen through an empowerment program than a law. Police won't go into a home where a woman is being abused and arrests the husband, unless the wife denounces it.

In second place, a forced removal of the veil – portrayed as a symbol of oppression, might result in French veiled women to be isolated. Media are already calling them “the fully veiled women.” The ban however, was considered as a way to stand by French traditions and not a mean to exclude a minority.

Lastly, public opinion is greatly influenced by the law. Last year in Rome, a woman ripped off the veil of two women in a market, shouting, “I’m scared of you!” Similar episodes of violence and discrimination should be expected in countries that decide to apply such ban.