STRASBOURG: The European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) began an examination of France’s prohibition on the wearing of full-face veils, the so-called burqa ban that is seen by critics as a breach of religious freedom.
By coincidence, the Strasbourg-based court began studying the contentious issue on the same day that an appeal court in Paris upheld the right of a nursery to fire a female employee who insisted on wearing an Islamic headscarf at work.
Both cases have been subject to long-running legal battles, which have pitted France’s long-standing secular traditions against sections of the country’s large Muslim minority.
The case before the human rights court was brought by a 23-year-old French graduate who has family in Birmingham, England and who requested anonymity because of concern over the reaction to her lawsuit in France. A ruling in the case is expected early next year.
The woman, identified only by her initials S.A.S. and her British legal team are seeking to persuade the rights court to categorize the French law as essentially discriminatory.
She argues that the burqa ban violates her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a prohibition against discrimination.
In written evidence, she has testified that she is not constrained to wear the burqa by any man and that she is willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons—directly addressing the French authorities’ two main arguments in favor of the ban.
“Wearing a burqa is not a sign of extremism,” one of her lawyers, Ramby De Mello, told the court.
France’s lead counsel Edwige Belliard said the ban related to all means of covering the face, including motorbike helmets and balaclava-style headwear, as well as veils. “It is a law designed to promote living together, it is not an anti-religious law,” she said.
The French veil ban was introduced under former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right government but has been fully backed by the current Socialist government.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said recently the ban was “a law against practices that have nothing to do with our traditions and our values.”
Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France’s lead and similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.
Under the French law, approved in 2010 and implemented the following year, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to 150 euros ($203).