France and Belgium’s burqa bans have recently been triumphant in the dock. This week, the European Court of Human Rights threw out the claim from a 24-year-old burqa-wearer that the law banning burqas in France infringed on her fundamental human rights. The week before, France’s highest court upheld the firing of a crèche worker for wearing a veil to work.
Some European libertarians have been very disappointed by these rulings. But the truth is that the real battle is occurring not in the rarefied world of the courts, but in tussles on the streets.
Since the ban on full-face coverings was introduced in 2011, there have been a growing number of conflicts between niqab or burqa-wearing women and police officers demanding a ‘contrôle d’identité’ (identity check). Last year, there were violent conflicts in Parisian suburbs and cities such as Marseille, when face-covered women refused to cooperate with police asking to see their papers and faces.
In each case, the woman engaged in some very forthright behaviour, in one case biting a police officer (aggression for which she was jailed), in another telling him to ‘shut your mouth, you son of a bitch’. In each case the confrontation escalated, and the woman’s family and bystanders ended up jostling or openly fighting with police officers. A man is serving a sentence for attempting to strangle an officer who challenged his burqa-clad wife. In an incident in the Parisian suburb of Trappes, an identity check on one woman led to two nights of violence. As one report described it: ‘Two-hundred-and-fifty people hurling stones and paving slabs clashed with police firing tear gas, while 400 others gathered to protest across the high-rise suburb west of Paris, torching cars, bins and bus-shelters.’
In these cases, a face-covering is becoming the focus for conflicts between particular immigrant communities and the French state. Indeed, some claim that the burqa-wearing women ‘are looking for confrontation’: the Islamic full-face covering, with the original meaning of women’s marginalisation, perversely takes on the meaning of a challenge to state authority.