News / Europe

France's Veil Ban Goes into Effect

A woman named Yamina at the Fraternite, or Brotherhood mosque in Aubervilliers
A woman named Yamina at the Fraternite, or Brotherhood mosque in Aubervilliers

France becomes the first country to enforce a ban against the niqab, or Muslim face veil Monday, when new legislation comes into force.

Friday prayer service at Fraternite -- or Brotherhood - Mosque in Aubervilliers. The women's section is packed -- and reflects France's rich immigrant mix. There are colorful. North African djellabas and sub-Saharan African gowns -- along with many all-encompassing black veils, or hijabs.

The imam's service is piped in. Women's and men's sections of the mosque are completely separated. He is castigating young men and women for mixing in public if they are not related.

For 22-year-old Someya, this will be the last Friday she goes to the mosque wearing a face veil, also known as a niqab or burqa. On Monday, new French legislation comes into effect banning women from wearing the garment.

Someya says it breaks her heart to take off the face veil because it is a statement of her Islamic faith. She says she adopted it six months ago as a personal choice.

Twenty-four-year old university student Yamina wears the hijab -- a full veil that does not cover the face.  "I'm wearing the hijab and not the niqab because I haven't got the opportunity,” she said. “Because the laws are against us and against the Muslims."

But Sarah Morvan, an 18-year-old Muslim convert, says she will keep wearing the face veil despite the ban. She will simply stay at home more.

By wearing the niqab, Morvan says she feels shielded from the looks of men and strangers. She feels cut off from society.

That's exactly what supporters of the face veil ban are fighting against. While the government estimates there are only about 2,000 women wearing the face veil in France, advocates of the ban argue the legislation is necessary if the country's estimated 5-6 million Muslims - many of them immigrants - are to integrate.

The legislation has been spearheaded by center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy - who also says it is critical to ensure the respect of women's rights and the separation of church and state.

In speeches like this one, in 2009, Sarkozy said there is no place for the face veil in France. There is no place in France for women's subjugation - under any circumstances.

But many Muslims - including those who do not wear or approve of the face veil - claim they are being unfairly targeted. They say Sarkozy and his governing UMP party are discriminating against Muslims, partly in a bid to court anti-immigration and far right voters ahead of presidential elections next year. Last week, the UMP sparked similar criticism by holding a debate on Islam and secularity.

At the Aubervilliers mosque, one women Malika - who does not wear the face veil - recalls Sarkozy speaking to a conservative Muslim group a few years ago -- when he was then France's interior minister.

Malika said Sarkozy told the women attending the meeting to take off their veils. The women responded by waving their French identity cards - and telling him they were French and Muslim - and proud of it.

Under the legislation, women wearing the face veil in public risk fines of up to $200 and taking re-education classes. Those who force a woman to wear the face veil face even tougher penalties -- of up to $41,000 and a year in prison.

Belgium passed a similar ban last year and other European countries are eyeing legislation, but France is the first to enforce it.

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