French burqa ban challenged in top court

2013-11-27 14:29

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Paris - Europe's top rights court on Wednesday began hearing a challenge to France's ban on the Islamic face veil from a woman who argued the so-called burqa ban violated her religious freedom.

Wearing a garment that conceals the face is banned in public under a law dating to 2011.

The law is aimed at wearers of the burqa (a full-body covering with a mesh screen for the eyes) and niqab (a veil that covers the face with just a slit for the eyes).

Women caught wearing the garment can be fined $150 or required to take citizenship classes. In most cases, however, the police let the woman off with a warning, if she uncovers her face for an identity check.

The woman who brought the case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the French city of Strasbourg told the court she wore the niqab on occasion, with no pressure from her husband or family.

She argued that banning the garment in public was a breach of her privacy, her freedom of religion and her freedom of expression and also exposed her to public harassment.

The case is being heard by the Grand Chamber of the court, which is made up of 17 judges from different countries. A ruling is not expected for several months.

Crèche case

In a separate case on Wednesday, a Muslim woman who was fired from her job in a private crèche in 2008 for refusing to remove her headscarf at work lost her court challenge.

The Court of Appeal in Paris backed the view of the Baby-Loup crèche in the western Paris suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes that Fatima Afif had committed a "serious mistake."

The court took a contrary view to the Court of Cassation, France's top court, which had accused the crèche of religious discrimination in a March ruling and declared that a 2004 law banning the headscarf in state schools did not apply to private institutions.

The Court of Appeal - to which the case returned - agreed that religious freedom was a "fundamental principle".

But the crèche also had a right to set down rules on how people working with children, in a multicultural environment, should behave, the court found.

Afif's lawyers have announced plans to appeal the ruling.

Secularism is a hot-button topic in France, the country with the biggest Muslim population in western Europe.

The burqa ban was presented as an attempt to liberate Muslim women. But many people in the high-rise suburbs where most immigrants live view it as an attempt to stigmatise Muslims.

Read more on:    france  |  religion

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