French parliament debates Islamic veil ban

Veiled Muslim women attend a meeting in Montreuil, outside Paris. Photo: May 2010
Image caption Only a tiny percentage of French Muslim women wear full veils

The French parliament is debating plans to ban the wearing of full Islamic veils in public.

The bill in front of the lower house would make it illegal to wear the niqab or burka anywhere in public.

It envisages fines of 150 euros (£119) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros and a year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka.

A vote on the proposed legislation will be taken next week before a full vote in the senate in September.

The veil ban, which is expected to be backed by a majority of French MPs, is also winning support in other parts of Europe.

Belgium's lower house has approved a similar measure and Spain's senate recently narrowly voted to impose a ban, too.

'Hijacking Islam'

At the start of the three-day debate in the National Assembly, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told lawmakers that wearing a face-covering veil "amounted to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic that is founded on a desire to live together".

Prime Minister Francois Fillon set the tone of this debate last week at the opening of a new mosque in the suburbs of Paris, the BBC's Christian Fraser reports from the French capital.

Muslims who wore the full veil were "hijacking Islam" Mr Fillon said, providing a "dark sectarian image" of the religion.

Though members of parliament from across the political spectrum have criticised full Islamic veils, the French Green and Communist parties oppose a law limited to that issue, saying it stigmatises Muslims.

The opposition Socialist Party, which has argued for a partial ban that would be enforced in public offices and shops but not on the street, is expected to abstain from a vote. That would allow the bill to pass comfortably.

There are estimated to be only about 2,000 women wearing the full veil in France, with most of these in the niqab rather than the burka, although the bill is opposed by many of France's five million Muslims.

Muslim headscarves

The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. These scarves come in myriad styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.
The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.
The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and an accompanying tube-like scarf.
The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.
The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.
The chador, worn by many Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
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Critics of the new legislation point to studies by the interior ministry that show many women do not fit the stereotype of marginalised, oppressed women, since a large number have taken the veil of their own volition.

The police unions have already expressed concerns over how such a law will be enforced and the idea of pressuring women to remove the veil.

There are also human rights considerations, and legal experts warn the broad scope of the law banning the veil in all public places as opposed to state institutions could be overturned by the constitutional court.

Amnesty International has said a ban would "violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion".

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