The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday upheld a French ban on the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public.
The court ruled that the French government’s decision to ban the wearing of the full-body burqa in public is not in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights after a 24-year-old woman claimed the law violated her right to religion.
The ban came into effect in April 2011 and imposes a fine of £120 for anyone wearing clothing that covers the face.
The ECHR said in its ruling that the ban “was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face”.
“The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question”, a statement added.
The law – introduced by former Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy – has pitted those in France who say the Islamic veil is degrading for women and those who advocate for religious freedom.
The unnamed woman said the ban infringed on her ability to live according to her religious faith, culture and personal convictions.
The woman said no member of her family has put pressure on her to wear the burqa and niqab.
She wears them in public and private, but not all the time, she said.
The French Constitutional Council said in 2010 that the law does not impose disproportionate punishments or prevent the free exercise of religion in a place of worship, finding therefore that “the law conforms to the Constitution” and to European conventions.
Rights campaigners however, say the government has no right to tell people what clothes to wear or how to practice their faith in a country which is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
The ban caused widespread anger within the community, even amongst moderate Muslims who initially supported a ban on covering the face in government areas such as town halls and post offices.
One French-Algerian businessman even set up a million euro fund to help any Muslim who was fined.