In a surprisingly honest but disturbing decision, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s ban on the full-faced veil because veiling makes people uncomfortable.
S.A.S. is a 24-year-old French Muslim woman who wears a full-faced veil or niqab. She challenged the 2010 French law–which we’ve covered before–that bans wearing clothing that covers the face in public and imposes a fine of 150-euro ($205) and/or citizenship instruction. The ban, S.A.S. argued before the European Court of Human Rights, violates the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the prohibition of discrimination. The Court, however, disagreed and upheld the ban in a decision that cannot be appealed.
Why, according to the Court, is the ban OK? Is it a safety issue related to concealing ones identity? No. And, it is worth noting, S.A.S. willingly removes her niqab for identity check purposes at places like airports and banks, for example.
Is it about protecting women from alleged coercion? No. As the court said, “The applicant also emphasised that neither her husband nor any other member of her family put pressure on her to dress in this manner” and that she “wished to be able to wear it when she chose to do so… to feel at inner peace with herself.” And the Court explicitly rejected the claim of the French government that the ban related to women’s rights: “The Government referred to the need to ensure ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open democratic society’, listing three values in that connection: respect for gender equality, respect for human dignity and respect for the minimum requirements of life in society (or of ‘living together’).” Though the Court ”dismiss[ed] the arguments relating to the first two of those values, the Court accepted that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of ‘living together’. In that connection, it indicated that it took into account the State’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction.”
So, according to the Court, “living together” requires being able to see people’s faces. And, according to the Court, covering ones face violates the rights of individuals who, “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. ” Forcing people to see other people wearing veils violated “the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.”
Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen described the ironic consequences of the ruling: “As the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly insisted, discomfort and shock are the price democratic societies must pay precisely to enable ‘living together’. The reality is that in forcing people to ‘live together’, this ruling will end up forcing a small minority to live apart, as it effectively obliges women to choose between the expressing their religious beliefs and being in public.”
If France and the European Union are really committed to “living together” they must defend and protect the rights of all citizens, not just the majority.
Katie Halper is a writer, comedian and film-maker.