French Veil Ban Goes to European Court of Human Rights

On November 27, 2013, the European Court of Human Rights held a Grand Chamber hearing (which was broadcast on the Internet) in the case of S.A.S v. France (Application no 43835/11). The case concerns a French Muslim woman’s complaint that French law prohibits her from wearing a full-face veil in public. As of April 2011, French Law no. 2010-1192 prohibits concealment of one’s face in all places open to the public in France. The penalty for breaking the law is a fine of up to €150 and/or compulsory citizenship classes. Separate significant penalties are provided for anyone forcing a woman to conceal her face in public.

The applicant is one of 300 women who were fined under the law within its first year for wearing a niqab (a veil that leaves only the eyes visible). According to the woman’s application, the law violates the applicant’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically six articles:

  • Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) — the applicant complains that as it is prohibited by law, on pain of criminal sanctions, to wear in public a garment designed to conceal her face, she risks not only incurring such a sanction but also suffering harassment and discrimination (i.e. inhuman or degrading treatment), if she wears the full-face veil
  • Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) — the statutory prohibition on the wearing in public places of a garment designed to conceal the face prevents her from dressing as she chooses
  • Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) — in the applicant’s view, her inability to wear the full-face veil in public places is incompatible with the freedom to manifest her religion or belief individually or collectively, in public or in private, by worship, teaching, practice and observance of rites
  • Article 10 (freedom of expression) — the applicant complains of a violation of her right to freedom of expression, because she is unable to wear in public a garment that expresses her faith and religious, cultural and personal identity
  • Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) — she complains of a violation of her right to freedom of assembly and association, because she is prevented from assembling with others in public wearing the full-face veil
  • Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) — the applicant complains that the statutory prohibition on wearing a garment designed to conceal one’s face in public places gives rise to discrimination based on gender, religion and ethnic origin, to the detriment of women who, like herself, choose to wear a full-face veil

The applicant also argues that the niqab, as well as the burka full-body covering, accord with her “religious faith, culture and personal convictions.” She said she wanted to wear such garments in some circumstances, including in public places, and was not under pressure from her family to do so.

According to her testimony at the hearing,

“Her aim is not to annoy others but to feel at peace with herself.”

The French government lawyer Edwige Belliard argued that the law is democratic and backed by “a strong conviction among the French public.” In addition, “wearing the full veil not only makes it difficult to identify a person, it makes her indistinguishable from other full veil wearers and effectively erases the woman who wears it,” the lawyer told the Court.

In the government’s opinion, the Act complies with Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 (France’s human rights legislation), which states that

“No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established law and order.”

The Court is now deliberating the case in private and will provide a ruling at a later date. France’s Le Figaro newspaper doesn’t expect the Court’s ruling until the middle of next year.

S.A.S. v France is the first case in which the European Court of Human Rights has been called to address the validity of a criminal ban on wearing the full-face veil in any public place in relation with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Interestingly, that same day, a daycare in France won a landmark legal battle upholding the firing of Muslim worker, Fatima Afif, who insisted on wearing an Islamic headscarf in violation of their strict neutral dress code, which was established following the coming into force of French Law 2010-1192.

The ruling states that the daycare had a “public service mission” and had a right to “impose neutrality on its personnel.”

Afif’s lawyer said it was likely that she will appeal the ruling.

Despite the challenges in France, a number of countries, including Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland all have—or are planning—similar legislation. In Canada, Quebec aims to prohibit “ostentatious” religious symbols (such as the burka and niqab) in interactions with the public service.

We will keep a lookout for the European Court of Human Rights ruling. It may have an impact on other countries’ decisions to implement or keep similar legislation. Alternatively, the Court may provide guidelines on how such law should be implemented to obtain the result of secularism of the State.

This is my last post before the holidays and I would like to wish you all Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

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