In 2010, when France passed a law that banned full-face coverings in public, some police organizations warned that they didn’t have the resources to enforce it. At the time, a leader of a French police union told the New York Times that the law was “a source of trouble more than anything else,” adding that its enforcement would cause riots in certain communities.
Although the law didn’t mention Muslim women’s apparel in particular, it described any face covering in public places as illegal. It also outlined fines of tens of thousands of dollars for anyone who forced a woman to cover her face.
On Tuesday, years after the law went into effect, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that France had violated the human rights of two women who in 2012 were fined under that law after they publicly wore the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women.
The law, which was passed during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, was protested by some who saw it as an effort to prevent Muslim women from expressing their religion publicly. But others viewed it as a way to increase public safety and solidify French identity. At the time, some argued they believed the ban would liberate women.
The committee said, however, that it was not convinced by French authorities' claims that face coverings threaten public safety and concluded instead that the law prevented the petitioners in the two cases from following their religious beliefs. The committee also found that the ban effectively prevents women who cover their faces from leaving home, thus isolating them from the rest of French society and “impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them,” the committee’s statement said.
Both the women, who had been prosecuted separately, filed complaints with the committee in 2016.
Tuesday’s landmark ruling stated that France should compensate the women and come up with ways to prevent such human rights violations, but it is not legally binding. France has 180 days to respond to the committee’s request and report back.
The committee’s chairman, Yuval Shany, said in a statement that “the decisions are not directed against the notion of secularity, nor are they an endorsement of a custom which many on the committee, including myself, regard as a form of oppression of women.”
“Rather, the decisions represented the position of the committee that a general criminal ban did not allow for a reasonable balance between public interests and individual rights,” he said.
The ruling comes at a time when European countries are increasingly opting to ban face veils, even though large numbers of women in Europe do not even wear the veil. As The Washington Post reported in August, Denmark’s recent ban on face coverings in public places made it the latest country in Europe to implement such a policy. Amnesty International called Denmark’s veil ban “a discriminatory violation of women’s rights” and said that “women should be free to dress as they please and to wear clothing that expresses their identity or beliefs.” In June, the Netherlands voted to partially ban veils in certain locations.
Across the continent, fines can range from 100 to 400 euros for single offenses. And they aren’t necessarily effective.
In Switzerland, a ban on face coverings has unexpectedly ended up affecting soccer fans. As The Post reported in August, in the country’s Ticino region, most of the cases had to do with “sports hooliganism,” not religion.