On Monday, France's ban on wearing the burqa and niqab in public goes into effect, and 59 people have already been arrested for holding an illegal protest. Some women are refusing to abandon the veil, and insist that the law violates their rights.
CNN reports that protesters were arrested in Paris on Saturday for refusing to leave the scene. Five were held overnight because they didn't have proper identification, and two are still in police custody. Authorities say the group wasn't granted permission to demonstrate because they are known Islamic extremists and could have provoked dangerous counter-demonstrations. A silent protest march has been approved for Monday morning.
Only about 2,000 women wear the burqa or niqab in France. Starting tomorrow, they'll be fined 150 euros ($215) or sentenced to community service for covering their faces in public. Those who force a woman to wear a veil face a 30,000 euro fine (about $43,400) and up to a year in prison.
French politicians have argued that the veil hurts national unity, and is a safety concern. Last summer, before the bill passed, Jean-François Copé, leader of the French National Assembly, explained in a New York Times op-ed:
This face covering poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order. An armed robbery recently committed in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burqas provided an unfortunate confirmation of this fact. As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about.
The Irish Times reports that a memo sent from interior minister Claude Guéant to police chiefs said the law, "would not prohibit the covering of one's face with a motorcycle helmet, a bandage, a welding mask, a fencing mask or a fancy dress mask." So the criminals who dressed in burqas during one isolated crime may want to look into what counts as a "fancy dress mask."
Police have been told they do not have the right to remove a woman's veil, and the law will not be applied near mosques. The ban applies in public spaces, but not in private homes, offices, or cars.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of pushing the measure to win favor with conservatives before the 2012 election. He responded to criticism of the law, saying,
"Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I'm thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected." Mr Sarkozy said France was "an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women's dignity, and of life together. It's the fruit of centuries of efforts."