Hugh Fitzgerald: Is the Niqab Ban Really “A Violation of Human Rights”?


GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. Human Rights Committee said on October 22  that France’s ban on the niqab, the full-face Islamic veil, was a violation of human rights and called on it to review the legislation.

France had failed to make the case for its ban, the committee said, and gave Paris 180 days to report back to say what actions it had taken.

“In particular, the Committee was not persuaded by France’s claim that a ban on face covering was necessary and proportionate from a security standpoint or for attaining the goal of ‘living together’ in society,” it said.

The panel of 18 independent experts oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Implementation of its decisions is not mandatory, but under an optional protocol of the treaty, France has an international legal obligation to comply “in good faith”.

The French ban was not on the niqab alone, but on all coverings of the face, no matter what kind: kerchiefs, balaclavas, burqas. There were two main reasons given by the French for their law. The first, and most important, was security. It is impossible to identify people who are wearing the niqab or burka. These have been used too often in the commission of crimes. Suicide bombers, murderers, jewel thieves, “honor” killers, throwers-of-acid, bank robbers, street criminals, have all been known to wear niqabs. or burkas, to remain unidentifiable. In one city, Philadelphia, there  have been more than two dozen cases of criminals wearing the niqab or burka (a full face-and-body covering, with a mesh veil over the eyes) while committing their crimes.

The niqab and burqa full-face veils have been banned not just in France, but in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and in such largely-Muslim lands as Chad, Cameroon, Morocco, Niger, and Congo-Brazzaville, with partial bans in a dozen other countries in Europe and Africa, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey. There have been many high-profile crimes involving niqabs. An embezzler escaped from Dubai wearing a niqab. Three thieves were buzzed into a jewelry store in London, all wearing burqas, where they proceeded to rob and kill the store owner; in London, someone who threw acid in the face of a girl wore a niqab that allowed him/her to escape identification; niqab-wearers have murdered people in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Chad, Cameroon.

A French foreign ministry spokesman said the law was legitimate, necessary and respected religious freedom. The ban applies to hiding one’s face, not to any type of religious clothing that leaves the face uncovered, he told reporters.

The French spokesman also pointed out that both France’s constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are binding, had upheld the full-face veil ban, saying it did not violate religious freedom.

The European Court of Human Rights upheld the burqa/niqab ban in 2014, ruling that banning the veil does not breach human rights. Apparently that was not authoritative enough for the U.N.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee disagreed with this in its statement on October saying the ban disproportionately harmed the right of women to manifest their religious beliefs and could lead to them being confined at home and marginalized.

So the threat to security is deemed less of a worry than the possibility that a Muslim woman might be “confined at home and marginalized.” There are ways to handle that problem through the legal system. It can be made illegal for anyone to confine a woman at home because of her dress. If Muslim men don’t like this law, perhaps they will reconsider whether they want to remain in a land where the Infidels still write the laws. As for women being “marginalized”in the larger society because they cannot go out in their niqabs, surely wearying the niqab is itself the strongest possible sign of self-marginalization. It signals that the wearer is a devout Muslim, does not wish to “take Christians or Jews as friends, for they are friends only with each other,” and knows that the Unbelievers are “the most vile of created beings.” It’s not the banning, but the wearing, of the niqab that creates marginalization. Muslim women who do not cover are much more likely to integrate, even if only partially, into a non-Muslim society.

The committee’s findings follow complaints by two French women convicted in 2012 under a 2010 law stipulating that “No one may, in a public space, wear any article of clothing intended to conceal the face”.

Nothing is said about the niqab. The ban refers to “any article of clothing intended to conceal the face.”

In its findings the panel called on France to pay the two women compensation.

Under the ban, anyone wearing the full-face veil in public is liable to a fine of 150 euros ($170) or lessons in French citizenship. According to Metronews media, 223 fines were handed out in 2015 for wearing a full veil in public.

Other countries in Europe have introduced legislation on Islamic dress. Denmark’s parliament enacted a ban on wearing of face veils in public in May. Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have also imposed some restrictions on full-face veils in public places.

France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe, estimated at 5 million or more out of a population of 67 million. The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public can be a matter of controversy in the staunchly secular country.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee came to similar conclusions on the 2008 case of a woman sacked by a creche for wearing a veil. In September, a top French judge was quoted by newspaper Le Monde as saying that while not binding, the panel’s decisions might still influence French case law.

The refusal of the U.N. Human Rights Committee to take seriously the security concerns of the French government, concerns which are shared by many other countries, including several that are Muslim, that have similarly banned the niqab and burqa — when there has been so much evidence to justify that concern — is maddening. Fortunately, the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s ruling is not mandatory and, one hopes that the French government, free to ignore it, will do just that.

If a Muslim woman cannot go out in public in France unless she wears a niqab, that is her problem — and her husband’s. It is not a reason for the French state to let down its guard against the real and present danger of niqabbed criminals. She and her husband may find that as a  consequence, France is not for them. In which case: Bon Voyage.

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