France's lower house of Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of banning women from wearing the full Muslim veil – the face-covering niqab and the burqa – in public. Some say the move is necessary for security while others say it is religious discrimination against Muslims.
The vote was overwhelming Tuesday – 336 - 1. More than 200 opposition Socialists and Communists boycotted the ballot, with some predicting the law would be overturned in court.
However, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, said the vote upholds values France has held for centuries.
"These are values that remind us that France is never as big, as strong, as recognized in the world, as when it is united around its values,” she said. “Humanitarian values, which today as yesterday forge our unity, our uniqueness and the greatness of France."
The controversy over the burqa and the niqab in France has been ongoing for years. About five million Muslims live in France, and only a minority of Muslim women wears the garments that conceal either all but their eyes or their entire identity.
Ibrahim Hooper is a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says that the French vote is a thinly-disguised attempt to discriminate against all Muslims, not just those who wear the burqa.
"It's really a new type of law targeting a particular minority faith based on the prejudices of the majority. And my religious rights should not be dependent on a majority vote,” said Hooper.
David Aaron, a Senior Fellow with the RAND Corporation outside Washington who focuses on the Middle East and Counterterrorism, told VOA that the face-covering veils do pose a security threat in public places such as train stations or bus stops because they make identification impossible.
"I know there are many people who believe this simply a racist, anti-Islamic sort of provision,” Aaron said. “But I think that it is also a serious problem and it is a serious problem for the French and other Europeans who are accustomed to having identity documents. And if you are wearing a burqa, there's no way to check those identity documents,” he added.
Human Rights Issue?
John Dalhuisen is an Amnesty International expert on discrimination in Europe. He says that banning the full-face veil in public could lead to more restrictions on women's rights.
"I think there's definitely a risk that some of those who are currently being forced to wear veils won't necessarily see their situation improve,” said Dalhuisen.
“They are likely to be restricted more to their home. They will see access to services, goods and perhaps even the assistance that they might want to reach out to taken away from them,” he added.
According to Dalhuisen, “There's obviously a risk of a double punishment - they are punished in the home and then they go out in the street and they are punished again."
Ibrahim Hooper says that the security argument is not valid - that there are plenty of circumstances where Muslim women are identified in private by removing their veils and then replacing them in public.
“Female officers can see the face. There's all kinds of ways to deal with that situation,” Hooper said.
“Muslim women in face veils regularly get on airlines, and you don't have tougher security than airline security,” the CAIR spokesman said. “That's just one of those arguments that is thrown out there, and it really has nothing to do with the real issue and the real issue is the targeting of Islam in Europe."
If the ban becomes law, violators face a $190 fine. Men who force women to wear the full veils face an $18,000 fine and a year in jail. The French law goes to the Senate in September where it is also expected to pass.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that more than 82 percent of the French public approves of the ban. Majorities in Germany (71 percent), Britain (62 percent) and Spain (59 percent) said they would support banning the full-face veils in their own countries. By contrast, in the same poll, a majority of Americans said they would not approve a similar law.