The United Nations Human Rights Council has said France’s face veil ban is a violation of women’s rights, as it called for a review of the “sweeping” legislation.
In a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the body found that the French law, passed in 2010, violated the rights of two French women, who were fined in 2012 for concealing their faces in public. They had filed a complaint in 2016.
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“The Committee found that the general criminal ban on the wearing of the niqab in public introduced by the French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs, and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing,” the UN experts said in a statement.
“The ban, rather than protecting fully-veiled women, could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them,” the statement added.
According to the non-binding ruling, the French government has 180 days to report back to the UN committee, which has asked for compensation for the two petitioners.
France adopted the controversial law in 2010 under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who at the time said the all-enshrouding veil was “not welcome”.
“[The full veil] hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society,” he said.
In its statement, the committee said it 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.”
Meanwhile, Yuval Shany, committee chairman, stressed that “the decisions are not directed against the notion of secularity, nor are they an endorsement of a custom which many on the Committee, including myself, regard as a form of oppression of women.”
Women can be fined up to 150 euros ($170) for failing to abide by it.
Other European countries have also followed suit with similar legislation in Denmark, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and parts of Switzerland.
“There has been a real debate ever since this legislation was passed about the secular traditions inside France; that there needs to be social cohesion,” said Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from the French capital, Paris.
“This debate continues, it’s a very controversial area,” he said.
There was also anger among Muslim women in Europe last year when the European Court of Justice ruled that employers are entitled to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols.