By Hajer Naili

WeNews commentator

Friday, July 4, 2014

France expresses no concern over cyclists who race naked or sunbathe naked on certain beaches, yet is concerned by women who wish not to show their skin and face? I call that a blatant double standard.

Woman in niqab

Credit: Francesco Veronesi on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–It is disappointing that the European Court of Human Rights has decided to stand by the French government and uphold the ban of the full face-veil, called a niqab, worn by some Muslim women.

It is ironic because by doing so the European Court of Human Rights has denied to these women the fundamental rights of expression and religion enshrined in the French constitution.

The court on July 1 found that the French ban does not violate “the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The court, whose decision is final and cannot be appealed, also added that the law was not discriminatory since it “was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face.”

Since some face coverings like motorbike and sports helmets are exempted from the French ban, it is legitimate to wonder who else then could be targeted by the law if not Muslim women wearing the niqab?

Although the French law does not specify a religion, it is important to remember the debates that preceded the draft of the text and its adoption. For months, the full face-veil was at the center of debates sparked by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2009 proposed an effort to define the national identity of France. As part of that, Sarkozy constantly stigmatized France’s Muslim population to win votes from the far-right electorate. As France discussed the place of Islam, Sarkozy declared that he wished no halal food options in school canteens, no prayers outside and no minarets.

Discriminatory Ban

In such a context, it is not possible to deny the biased nature of the ban. France expresses no concern over cyclists who race naked or sunbathe naked on certain beaches, yet the country is concerned by women who wish not to show their skin and face. I call it a double standard.

Since 2011 women in France have been banned from wearing the niqab in any public place; not on the streets, not while taking a bus, entering a bank, library, store, a school or a host of other public places. The penalty for breaking the law can be a fine of about $205 and having to undergo citizenship instruction.

France has between 5 and 6 million Muslims–Europe’s largest Muslim population–and up to 2,000 women wear full veils, according to the Ministry of Interior.

The decision by the European court, which claimed that the face plays “a significant role in social interaction,” will only further cast out Muslim women wearing the full veil. These women are being forced to make a choice between expressing their religious beliefs and public engagement. As a result, many of them will most likely end up living isolated from the broad society that has ostracized them. On several occasions, I have interacted with Muslim women wearing the face veil and it has never been an obstacle to social interaction. I have interviewed and filmed Muslim women wearing the niqab and as long as the women are willing to communicate, there is no filter. To say so is an assumption made by individuals who have had few or no interactions with full-face veiled women.

The European court’s decision to support the French state disempowers Muslim women wearing the niqab by telling them they should live their faith differently and dress differently. Why can’t Muslim women be allowed to decide for themselves?

Wearing the niqab is a personal choice. Muslim women should have the right to decide how they want to dress without being coerced by either the authorities or a family member.

Male Politicians Uphold Law

French male politicians seem to know what is good for Muslim women. “We are here to defend our democracy and not to tolerate treatment enslaving women,” Jean-Paul Garraud, a member of the right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement, which drafted the law, told a radio station last summer.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls, from the Socialist Party, also expressed support for the ban in front of lawmakers at the National Assembly last summer. “The law banning the full veil has nothing to do with Islam but it is a law liberating women,” Valls said.

How can France and its elites know what is or isn’t good for Muslim women? Why do they think Muslim women need to be liberated? How do you liberate Muslim women by criminalizing their dressing?

It is stereotypical to assume that all Muslim women who wear a niqab or a veil are forced to do so. If it might happen in some cases, it is still wrong to punish a whole community by making generalizations.

Also, a Muslim woman who displays her religion in public through a piece of cloth isn’t usually aiming for proselytism through her clothing. It is simply because as a devout Muslim she has decided to live her faith in a way that she feels appropriate. A Muslim woman fully covered is not a threat to “democracy” or to national security. Most of them are willing to cooperate during identity checks. In a report released last summer, the French Observatory on Secularism found that “the vast majority” of identity checks are done “without use of coercion and without causing public disturbance.”

The court’s decision is likely to widen the gap between the state and some French Muslims. It will most likely contribute to reinforcing extremism and resentment toward the authorities. Another sign of the failure of the French system of integration.

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.