France’s controversial ban on face veils worn by some Muslim women, including the niqab and the burqa, is a violation of human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled on Tuesday.
The committee’s decision was made in consideration of complaints filed by two French Muslim women who were prosecuted and fined for wearing the niqab, which leaves only a woman’s eyes exposed, in 2012. The women were convicted based on a French law, instituted in 2010, that bans anyone in a public space from wearing “wear any article of clothing intended to conceal the face.”
Though the ban has been upheld by France's constitutional court and was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 — both of which are legally binding rulings — the UN disagrees with their conclusions.
The French government has defended its policy in the past saying that the wearing of the niqab, and the even more concealing burqa, are security threats and counter to the aim of “living together” in a society.
However, the UN committee said in a press statement that the ban “disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs” and added that the French government had not “adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing.”
France now has 180 days to act on the committee’s decision in the cases of the two women and report back to the committee. While the ruling is not legally binding, it puts pressure on the French government to not only compensate the two women for what the committee considers a violation of their rights, but to also re-evaluate and amend the law.
France is not the only country to have passed such a ban, though it was the first Western European country to implement such a policy, the New York times reported. Austria, Germany, Denmark, and parts of Canada also have similar policies in place, which rights activists say violate women’s rights to dress and observe their religious beliefs as they please.