Liberty intervenes in European Court case over French ‘burqa ban’

Today Liberty announced it is intervening in the European Court of Human Rights case concerning the criminalisation of face coverings in France.

The so-called ‘burqa ban’ – which came into force last year – outlaws French citizens from covering their faces in public spaces in France. A Muslim woman, known as S.A.S., filed an application to the European Court opposing the law on the day it was introduced.

Liberty has now intervened in the case, S.A.S. v France, which has major potential repercussions for freedom of religion and freedom of expression – not just in France but here in the UK and across Europe. In July 2010 Philip Hollobone MP tabled a Private Members Bill which would have outlawed face coverings in public in the UK. But Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has described the French law as “incomprehensible” and asserted that the British government has no intention to follow suit.

Liberty argues that the burqa ban breaches Article 8 (right to a private life)9 (freedom of religion)10 (freedom of expression) and14 (no discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The law aims to ban the burqa by making it an offence to wear clothing that conceals the face in public places including beaches, gardens and commercial premises such as cinemas and restaurants. The penalty is a 150-euro fine and/or a ‘citizenship course’ – suggesting its wearing is a sign of being ‘non-French’. Some of the language surrounding the debate over the ban in France has proved alarmingly inflammatory and racist.

The French Government has tried to justify the law by claiming the ban actually prevents Muslim women from being ‘cut off’ from others, bolsters public safety and increases equality between men and women. But in reality it prevents Muslim women from expressing their beliefs through Islamic dress. While there may be security concerns over facing coverings these would be better tackled with less intrusive measures – relevant French law relating to identity checks, for example, is already in place. And while promoting equality is essential, penalising women for expressions of faith does not promote equality – it undermines basic dignity.

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, said: “Wearing the full veil may be considered demeaning by some but for many women it’s a precious symbol of their faith.

“Such controversy is hardly resolved by imprisoning at home those women who feel compelled to wear the burqa or niqab. This blanket, discriminatory and disproportionate ban only serves to fuel the flames of Islamaphobia spreading across Europe.”

Liberty press release, 21 May 2012