The European Court of Human Rights has upheld France’s law banning face-covering Muslim veils from the streets, in a case brought by a woman who said that her freedom of religion was violated.
The ruling by the Strasbourg-based court was the first of its kind since France passed a law in 2010 that forbids anyone to hide his or her face in an array of places, including the street.
The law went into effect in 2011.
The court’s Grand Chamber rejected the arguments of the French woman in her mid-20s, a practicing Muslim not identified by name. She said she does not hide her face at all times, but when she does it is to be at peace with her faith, her culture and convictions.
She stressed in her complaint that no one, including her husband, forced her to conceal her face, something of particular concern to French authorities.
The court ruled that the law’s bid to promote harmony in a diverse population is legitimate and does not breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
Critics of the ban, including human rights defenders, contend the law targets Muslims and stigmatizes Islam. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at five million, making the issue particularly sensitive.
Izza Leghtas, a Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the court’s ruling was “quite disappointing”.
“It is quite disturbing that the court found no discrimination…we continue to determine that it is discriminatory against Muslim women,” she said.
“The court accepted France’s argument that the face veil ban will prevent interaction between people, but rejected that it was for security reasons.”
Under the law, women who cover their faces can be fined up to $205 or be obliged to attend a citizenship class or both.
When enacted, the law was seen as a security measure, with veiled women considered fundamentalists and potential candidates for conservative views.
Another concern was respect for the French model of integration in which people of different origins are expected to assimilate.
The court concluded that the ban is a “choice of society,” giving France a wide margin of appreciation, all the more so because there is no common ground in Europe on the issue. Only a minority of countries in the continent ban face veils.
Ryan Rifai contributed to this article