STRASBOURG: The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday upheld a Belgian ban on wearing the full-face niqab veil in public, calling the restriction “necessary in a democratic society”. The veil is a controversial issue across Europe, with some countries banning the garment in public in the name of safety and rights groups arguing that this amounts to a violation of civil liberties.

The court ruled that the ban sought to guarantee social cohesion, the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others” and that it was “necessary in a democratic society”, a statement said.

Belgian banned the wearing of the full-face veil in June 2011. It prohibits appearing in public “with a face masked or hidden, in whole or in part, in such a way as to be unidentifiable”. Violations can result in fines and up to seven days in jail.

The Belgian case was brought by two Muslim women, Samia Belcacemi, a Belgian national, and Yamina Oussar, a Moroccan. Both women said they chose of their own free will to wear the niqab and claimed their rights had been infringed and the law was discriminatory. After Belgium introduced the ban, Belcacemi continued wearing the veil for a while but stopped because of social pressure and fears she would be fined. Oussar told the court that she had decided to stay at home, the statement from the court said.

Niqab policies in other countries

Britain: There is no law restricting the wearing of garments for religious reasons. However, in March 2007 the education ministry published directives allowing directors of public establishments and denominational schools to ban the niqab veil.

France: It was the first European country to ban the full-face veil in public spaces with a law that took effect in 2011. The European Court upheld the French burqa ban in 2014, rejecting arguments that outlawing full-face veils breached religious freedom. The law has resulted in around 1,600 arrests since it came into force. Violations can result in fines of up to 150 euros ($170).

Germany: German lawmakers have approved a partial ban on “covering the face”. According to the legislation civil servants and officials, including judges and soldiers, must have their faces uncovered, and people can also be required to remove facial coverings in order to match them with their identity papers.

Italy: A 1975 law aimed at protecting public order makes it illegal to cover the face in public places but courts have systematically thrown out local moves to use the ban to outlaw the full-face veil. Two regions held by the anti-immigrant Northern League, Lombardy and Venetia, have banned the burqa and full face veil in hospitals and public places.

Spain: The country’s highest court annulled in 2013 a ban on the full-face veil in public buildings that had been decided three years earlier by the northeastern region of Catalonia.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2017

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