The U.N. Human Rights Committee has declared that France’s ban on full-face Islamic veils, such as the niqab and burqa, is a violation of Muslim women’s rights.
The committee, a body of 18 independent experts that monitors how nations implement an international civil rights treaty, said that France has failed to adequately explain why the 2010 law, which has come to be known as a burqa ban, was necessary.
“In particular, the Committee was not persuaded by France’s claim that a ban on face covering was necessary and proportionate from a security standpoint or for attaining the goal of ‘living together’ in society,” the committee said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Committee acknowledged that States could require that individuals show their faces in specific circumstances for identification purposes, but considered that a general ban on the niqab was too sweeping for this purpose.”
The committee, one of the many U.N. rights-monitoring groups supported by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, added that the ban confines women who wear full-face veils to their homes, “impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them.”
The burqa is a type of Islamic veil that covers the face completely, with a net screen for women to see through. The niqab leaves the area around the eyes open.
France’s law states, “No one may, in a public space, wear any article of clothing intended to conceal the face.” Violators face fines of 150 euros ($172) or could be asked to take a French citizenship course.
Although the committee’s rulings aren’t binding, they could influence French courts in the future, Reuters reports. As one of the 172 parties that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, France has an obligation to comply with the ruling “in good faith.”
France has 180 days to report back on steps it has taken to implement the decision. Specifically, the committee has asked France to review the law in question. The panel also wants the country to compensate the two French Muslim women who brought the case to the committee in 2016 after they were prosecuted and convicted in 2012 for wearing face veils in public.
The panel’s experts found that the burqa ban “disproportionately harmed” the women’s right to practice their religious beliefs.
The decision contradicts the 2014 findings of the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a U.N. agency. The judges in that case, whose rules are binding, sided with France, agreeing that the burqa ban encourages people to “live together.”
France was the first European country to ban full-face veils in public places, the BBC reports. Several European countries have also implemented some restrictions on Islamic face veils, including Denmark, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Other countries have bans in municipalities or are considering legislation for a national ban.
Often, the governments imposing the ban argue that it promotes an “open society” and doesn’t target any specific religion. In some countries, the bans also apply to other clothing that covers the face, such as balaclavas.
Opponents of these measures have long argued that they marginalize and unfairly target the tiny minority of European Muslim women who wear face veils as part of their spiritual practice.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Its estimated 5.7 million Muslims make up about 8.8 percent of the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
During the 2014 European Court of Human Rights case, French officials told judges they believe the number of women wearing niqabs and burqas had dropped drastically from 2009, when researchers estimated about 1,900 women in the country wore full-face Islamic veils.
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