Paris has been marred by riots from Muslims following the ban of their face covering veils. The demonstration in Marseille was against the conviction of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist. The demonstrations led to the arrest of seven, whose main offence was the balaclava they were wearing in protest. The law which was introduced in 2010 by the president Nicolas Sarkozy serves to curb Islamic extremism in the country. However, critics of the law say that the laws deprives the Muslim women the right to religion, a situation that serves as an example of the country’s and continent’s inability to embrace the rising number of Muslim population. The Dutch government also hopes to enact a similar law, banning the Niqab (Erlanger and Camus 2012). The law was expected to fuel increased tensions in the country which was already experiencing an economic crisis, terrorism threats and the risk of being termed as racist, did not attract as much resistance as was expected. This was largely because of tolerance from the Muslims and the police.
Police have been blamed for patchy administration of the law. This police say was to avoid further tensions in the country. In most cases, when confronted on the Niqab by the police, the women just lift off their veils. Most women affirm that at times the police do not bother them as they are well known to them. However, the situation flares up during the Holy month of Ramadan where the police have in some cases been beaten up even injured in confrontations requiring women to lift off their veil. The occasional outburst is evidence of the built up anger amongst the conservative group of Muslims who already feel discriminated against due to their poorer state of living.
The government led by Sarkozy, defended the law as one formulated as a security measure. It also imposes a jail term for individuals forcing other into the wearing of face covering clothes. To its defenders, the law ought to be seen as one that is aimed to protect the women from extremism while giving them the freedom of choice, allowing them the freedom to choose secularism if they so wished. However, Opponents to the law postulate that it only serves as an imprisonment term since most women, especially the married ones, are forced to restrict their movement or reluctantly remove the veils in public. Others have adapted a fashionable version of the Niqab, made from scarves, caps and sunglasses.
While most of the veil-wearing-women are not as outspoken, some have been seen to willfully boycott the law, by wearing the veils in public places and daring the police to make an arrest. Such women are well known to the police, who often let them have their way. Cases of mistreatment and assault have been subjected by ordinary people who see the law as a leeway to “lawfully stigmatize” the Muslim community. Prominent opponents of the law are Kenza Drider, who terms the law as ridiculous and Hind Ahmas who terms the law as a show of Frances’ boycott of selected human rights.
Although Muslim leaders such as Mr. Henniche are opposed to the law, they have continuously urged Muslims to follow the law following appeals to the law. The appeals could take years, could be ruled. Mr. Henniche is of the opinion that there are other issues that are of much importance to the Muslim community and are in urgent need for redress when compared to the Niqab case. The level of tolerance by the Muslim community he sees as an acceptance of the existence of other crucial issues such as the low number of mosques, the ban of halal as fast food or meal in schools and the right for the foreigners to participate in local elections. This level of tolerance amongst the Muslim community serves to ease the impact of the ban.
Background of the ban of face covering veils
The French ban prohibits the concealment of the face in public following an act passed by the parliament in July 2010 with the aim of including Muslims into secularism. Initial inquiry into face covering was made to the public with an overwhelming vote of 80% of the population supporting the ban. The bill received an overwhelming vote in both the national assembly and the senate. Only one member of the national assembly voted against the bill, citing that a fight against extremism was a risk toward totalitarianism. The law is also applicable to foreign tourists visiting the country. While there are slightly over six million Muslims in France, police estimates the number of veil covering as 2000.
Any headgear to include scarves, helmets, masks, balaclava and barqa were banned with the key argument being that a covered face obscures a person’s identity hence a security risk. Proponents also argue that face covering hinders social interaction in a society that relies on facial expression and recognition for communication. Others cite that face covering is a symbol of the subjugated state of the woman in the secular society. The law argues that the veil tampers with community relations while the law promotes secularism and gender equality. The law is applicable to both men and Muslims and non-Muslims but has been seen to affect the Muslim woman. Exceptions to the law have been extended in cases of motor bike riders, face covering events such as carnivals. Exceptions are also allowed for women to wear the Niqab if travelling in a private vehicle or inside a worship place. A sum of 150 Euros is charged as a fine for violation of the law or engagement in a citizenship education. The law also covers those forcing individuals to cover their faces by way of threat or abuse of power, imposing a fine of 30000 Euros and a prison term of one year. Some European countries intend to make similar laws in their countries. These include Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.
According to Muslim leaders, the veil is not mandatory according to the Quran but is a mere symbol of the Muslims’ cultural heritage. In France, the spread of face covering is linked with radicalization and terrorism. Face covering is a cultural belief that represents a woman’s purity, which is argued as a radical rejection of others. The ban may have elicited criticism all over the world, with regular protests in the country and increased tensions over the possibility of terrorist attacks. Although Muslim leaders are not necessarily against the ban, sentiments are that, women who are convinced to the wearing of veils should be allowed to do so without threatening their freedom. Pakistan leaders were particularly offended by the ban while Egyptian leaders supported the law on the basis of it victimizing women. International bodies such as amnesty international condemned the bill claiming violation of human rights while the UN was in support of the move.
Six month duration for education and discussions with the affected communities was set aside before the law was made constitutional. The program was implemented by social workers, Non-Governmental organizations with the chairmanship of Muslim woman, Ni Putes Ni Soumises targeting women and individuals affected. The discussion forum were successful in terms high attendance, some women reported their husbands who were coercing them into wearing the veils. However, there were few cases of harassment, physical assault and death threats to the government led representatives. The police was under strict instruction from the country’s interior minister to exercise sensitivity and objectivity in the initial stages of the enforcement of the law. The police are under instruction to request veil covering individuals to lift off their veils for identification purposes and in no circumstance allowed to forcefully remove the veil covering. Again, those arrested for face covering were expected to undergo lessons on the rationale of the law. Hind Ahmas and Nait Najate Ali became the first women to be arrested for wearing Niqab while Kenza Drider has publicly announced her discontent with the law even daring to run for the elections while wearing the Niqab. Ahmas has publicly shown her disregard for the law by attending her court hearing wearing the veil and although she was not allowed inside the court, she declared having no intentions to attend the civil classes and her desire to appeal the law as unconstitutional in the European court of human rights.
Several appeal cases have been filed against issues concerning the veil ban. One such case is the baby-Loup discrimination charges against the proprietor for sacking her on grounds she claimed were, religious discrimination. The court of appeal upheld that her sacking was legal stating that the defendant had a public service mission with the right to uphold neutrality at the work place.In another case sitting at Strasbourg, the complainant a 23 year old advocates for her right to be allowed the veil in some circumstances as it was not intended to annoy others but for her to feel at peace. This case was unusually handed over to the Grand Chamber, a ruling to which is pending. Appeal cases on the issue take long for redress.
In summary, the police admit that the enforcement of the law is difficult having it that heavy enforcement would be likely to fuel tension. Further, only a few of cases involving the Niqab have been taken to court, majority of which have been settled through fines charged by the police. The police have been seen to ignore Niqab wearing women walking freely on the street in what they call as there being more serious crimes demanding for their attention. This degree of tolerance could also be attributed to the attacks and assaults inflicted onto the officers while enforcing the law. Some officers have been beaten up, others strangled, while in some instances even led to clashes between the police and Muslim youths. Such was the case in Guyancourt and Elancourt where police stations were attacked by youth throwing projectiles.
Steve Erlanger’s article on the ban being a measure of European tolerance, notes that the impact of the ban was easier than was expected. From this point, it would be important to note that the high level of tolerance in France to the ban has been the result of the community campaigns and education forums conducted by government representatives before its enforcement. The forums must have had the consequence of changing perception of the veils by the Muslim women and discouraged forceful imposition of the veil by imams and husbands. The police in an effort to avoid confrontations have been seen to, compromise by requiring Niqab wearers to identify them by merely lifting off the veils. This turn of events has led the country be deemed less tolerant when compared to Britain and other European countries. In Britain, issues denouncing certain activities or items by a majority of votes are deemed as populism. This was Frances’ greatest fear while the president has been seen to be defensive as opposed to getting credit for the reception of the ban in the country.
In Britain attempt to introduce the face covering prohibition bill was describes by Thomas Hammarberg as “Capitulation to the prejudices of xenophobes. According to Hammarberg, the ban in France should be viewed as a means to curb immigration and related issues. The consequences of the ban in France and Belgium, he says, ought to be considered prior to tabling of such a bill in parliament. Opponents to the introduction of the bill cite the increases cases of assaults on women in France to have increased to 34% while hate crimes associated with the ban were more likely to be witnessed in Britain took Frances’ direction. Banning veil covering was tantamount to virtue imprisonment. Britain values liberty and tolerance taking pride in its freedom of religion. The great majority of opponents to a similar ban cite that while there were legitimate concerns in premises such as banks and airports requiring identification of an individual, it was unnecessary for France to require removal of the garment obscuring the face in public premises. This was leeway for the public to ostracize the Muslim women and hence un-British. Britain is tolerant of the cultural heritage of the Muslims, allowing them the freedom of expression. In comparison, the French are intolerant of diversity when compared to the British evidenced by the ban of veils. However, tolerance has been exercised by the law enforcement agencies that would rather have peace than fuel tension between them and the Muslims.