France instituted a ban on wearing face coverings in public in April, and the first fines may be handed down this week. In the past six months, authorities have been hesitant to enforce the measure, and many police officers are simply looking the other way when they see a woman in a veil. While the ban was ostensibly enacted to keep women safe, its biggest effect to date has been to increase the street harassment of Muslim women.
When officers see a women wearing a veil they're supposed to write her up, but they can't take off the face covering. While some have mistakenly given women €150 fines on the spot, but these penalties are supposed to be handed out by a judge, who can also order violators to attend a citizenship class. According to the Guardian, so far women in France have been stopped for wearing a veil about 100 times, but judges haven't punished anyone. The French justice ministry says there are fewer than 10 cases going through the courts, but this week we may see the first sentence handed out.
In May Hind Ahmas and a friend were stopped for wearing niqabs outside of town hall in Meaux. They were carrying an almond birthday cake for the town's mayor, which was meant to mock the policy. (The flavor was a play on the word "amende," which means fine in French.) On Thursday they'll appear in court and may become the first people to be fined under the ban.
According to Muslim groups, there's been an increase in discrimination and acts of violence against women who wear veils since the ban passed. Bus drivers and store owners turn women away for covering their faces, and sometimes people take it upon themselves to rip off women's veils. Ahmas says she's been attacked in the street, and most recently a couple called her a whore and punched her in front of her three-year-old daughter. She says:
"My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they've done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I'd be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were 'walking prisons'. Well, that's exactly where we've been stuck by this law."
While the French government says that no women have been sentenced yet because they'd prefer to have a "dialogue" with them, others say officials aren't motivated by a desire to share ideas about free expression. Gilles Devers, a lawyer representing Ahmas and several other women who violated the ban, explains that once a woman is fined, the case could be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court could embarass the French state by ruling that forcing women to choose between their religious beliefs and their ability to live their lives freely violates human rights laws and ostracizes Muslim women.