Landmark ruling on French burka ban

Salisbury Journal: A woman wears a burka in London A woman wears a burka in London

The French "burka ban" does not breach human rights laws, the European Court of Human Rights has declared in a landmark decision.

The ruling by the European Court's Grand Chamber was immediately condemned by a leading UK human rights campaigner for "criminalising women's clothing".

Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti also linked it to "the rising racism in Western Europe".

The test case was brought by a French woman in her mid-twenties who is a devout Muslim no longer allowed to wear in public the burka, which covers the whole body, or the full-face niqab veil, because a new French law prohibits concealment of the face in public places.

Known as S.A.S, the woman filed an application to the European Court opposing the law on the day it was introduced.

She told the court she wore both the burka and niqab in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions.

Neither her husband nor any other member of her family had put pressure on her to dress in the manner she had chosen, and h er aim was not to annoy others but to feel at inner peace with herself.

She complained that the new law, which came into force in April 2011, infringed the European Convention on Human Rights because it amounted to discrimination on grounds of sex, religion and ethnic origin.

But the European Court ruled that promoting respect for the conditions in which people "live together" in public places was a legitimate aim justifying the ban and did not breach the convention.

The court Registrar said in a statement that the European judges had taken into account the French submission that the face "played a significant role in social interaction".

It has also taken account of the view that "individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships" which formed "an indispensable element of community life".

The statement said: "The court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier."

Although the law admittedly had "specific negative effects" on Muslim women, it had "an objective and reasonable justification", the court ruled.

The overall decision was by a majority, with two judges giving a dissenting opinion.

The court declared there had been no violation of S.A.S's Article 8 right under the convention to respect for private and family life.

It also held there had been no violation of Article 9, which protects respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the law was not discriminatory under Article 14.

The UK human rights pressure group Liberty intervened in the court case, arguing against the ban.

After the ruling, Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti said: "How do you liberate women by criminalising their clothing?

"If you suspect bruises under a burka, why punish the victim, and if you disapprove of the wearer's choices how does banishing her from public engagement promote liberal attitudes?

"Banning the veil has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with rising racism in Western Europe."

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