European Court ruling on full-face veils punishes women for expressing their beliefs

Today’s European Court of Human Rights judgment upholding a general ban on wearing full-face veils in public is deeply damaging, warned Amnesty International. It represents a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion and sends a message that women are not free to express their religious beliefs in public.

The case was brought before the Strasbourg-based court by S.A.S, a 24-year-old French woman who argued that the general ban enacted in France in 2011 was in violation of her freedom of expression and a range of other rights. Women in France face fines and/or citizenship training for violating the law.

S.A.S. argued that the law is discriminatory on the basis of her gender and religion, violates her rights to freedom of expression, religion or belief and private life, and amounts to degrading treatment.

She told the Court that she does not wear the full-face veil all the time and is willing to take it off in the context of identity checks, at the airport, in banks or in other situations as required.

The European Court recognised that arguments for the ban based on security and gender equality were unfounded. But it accepted the argument that wearing full-face veils runs counter to established social norms that are necessary for what it described as ‘living together’.

John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International, said:

“This reasoning should be deeply disturbing to all those who value the freedom of expression. In forcing people to ‘live together’, the ruling will end up forcing a small minority to live apart, as it effectively obliges women to choose between expressing their religious beliefs and being in public.

“It is stereotypical to assume that all women who wear traditional or religious symbols or dress are coerced to do so, and no country should legislate away their rights, never mind punish them, based on such a crude generalisation.”

The judgment was handed down by the European Court’s Grand Chamber, meaning it cannot be appealed.

French law disproportionate and unnecessary

Although some restrictions of freedom of expression and religion can be justified in specific contexts, Amnesty believes that the general restrictions imposed by the French legislation are neither proportionate nor necessary. There is already national legislation in France ensuring that identity checks can be performed by law enforcement agents when necessary, with laws aimed at combating violence against women.

Besides the 2011 French ban, only one other European country and one region have put in place similar prohibitions on the use of full-face veils in public. This includes Belgium in 2011 and in the Swiss Canton Ticino in 2013. Local prohibitions remain in force in many municipalities in the Catalunya region of Spain. France is thus out of line with most of the rest of Europe in guaranteeing freedom of expression and religion.

Amnesty is calling on all relevant authorities to overturn such discriminatory bans.

French law and legal challenges

In today’s final Grand Chamber judgment in the case of S.A.S. v. France (application no. 43835/11) the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), Article 9 (right to respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion) or Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The French legislation entered into force on 11 April 2011 (Law 2010-192)265 and prohibits any form of dress aimed at concealing the face in public. The material scope of the ban is wide as it applies to all public spaces; full-face veils can only be worn at home, in private cars or in places of worship.

Some other exceptions to the general ban include situations where the face is covered on the basis of existing safety and health regulations or for public festivities. Whoever contravenes the legislation can be punished with a fine and/or citizenship training; courts are responsible for deciding on the punishment, on a case by case basis. The law also introduces a provision aimed at punishing people found to be coercing women to cover their face.

No evidence of coercion

According to France’s Ministry of Interior, in 2010 there were 1,900 women wearing full-face veils in the country.

There is no evidence at all that women who wear full-face veils are forced or coerced. Research undertaken by Amnesty and other organisations, including the Open Society Institute in France, found that of women who wear a full-face veil, some wear it part-time, others only for a limited period of time. The research also found that, contrary to common belief, women who wear a full-face veil do not necessarily do so to reject or segregate themselves from French society.

According to a survey from French pollsters BVA, French society’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims are becoming less and less tolerant. Ninety-four and 80 per cent of French people, respectively, think that wearing a full-face veil or a headscarf constitutes a problem. Pupils are not allowed to wear headscarves or other religious symbols in any public French school (they can in universities).

The CCIF (collectif contre l'Islamophobie en France) has collected 482 cases of discrimination and 27 cases of physical attacks against Muslims in 2013. 

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