A French court on Thursday heard the country's first case against women refusing to obey a new law banning the wearing of Islamic face veils in public. The two women, who wear the niqab, a veil that covers the hair and face with just a slit for the eyes, were ordered to appear before the court in the town of Meaux, about 40 kilometres east of Paris, for going to the local town hall on May 5 with their faces veiled.
Only one of the women — called Hind — appeared at the court, and she was barred from entering after refusing to remove her veil for the duration of the hearing. She offered to undergo an identity check, but this was refused.
Under a new law prohibiting people from concealing their face in public — widely referred to as the ‘burqa ban' because it is aimed at wearers of the Islamic burqa, or full-body covering, and niqab — the women risk a fine of 150 euros and/or being asked to take lessons in citizenship. A person who forces a woman to wear a veil risks a year in prison and 30,000 euros in fines.
The two women were booked by police after showing up at Meaux town hall with a birthday cake for Mayor Jean-Francois Cope, who is also leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative ruling Union for a Popular Majority (UMP). The cake was made of almonds, a word which sounds like the French word for fines (amendes), and was meant as a dig at the government over the timid application by the authorities of the two-month-old law.
While several women have been booked by police, only one has been fined so far, according to Rachid Nekkaz, founder of Don't Touch My Constitution, a group lobbying against the ban.
Hind said she hoped to be fined, so that she could challenge the law, which she sees as an attack on her freedom of religion, in the European Court of Human Rights.