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France's ban on full-face veils violates freedom of expression, group says

French police and gendarmes check identity cards of two women for wearing full-face veils, or niqabs, in Lille, 22 September 2012.
French police and gendarmes check identity cards of two women for wearing full-face veils, or niqabs, in Lille, 22 September 2012.

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

ARTICLE 19 has filed third-party intervention submissions in the case of S.A.S. v. France (no. 31955/11). The case is currently pending before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (European Court). ARTICLE 19 argues that France's 2010 criminal ban on full-face veils in public violates:
  • the right to freedom of expression
  • the right to freedom of religion or belief
  • the prohibition on discrimination.
The case of S.A.S v. France

The applicant to the European Court, a French national and practising Muslim, complained that she was fined for wearing the niqab (a full body covering with a veil that covers a woman's hair and face leaving on the eyes visible). A ban on wearing clothing concealing one's face in public came into effect in France in April 2011. The penalty for breaking the law is a fine of up to €150 or compulsory citizenship classes. Separate penalties are provided for anyone forcing a woman to conceal her face in public. The applicant is one of 300 women who were fined under the law within its first year. The case was passed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court on 28 May 2013.

The case of S.A.S. v. France will be the first in which the European Court will address the compatibility of a criminal ban on wearing the full-face veil in any public place with the European Convention on Human Rights.

ARTICLE 19's submissions

ARTICLE 19 believes that this case presents the European Court with an important opportunity to clearly set out the appropriate scope of laws which restrict religious attire, whether on the basis of:
  • national security
  • public order
  • women’s rights
  • gender equality
  • national values, such as secularism.
In our submissions, we outline comparative international and state practice in this area, addressing the following issues:
  • Numerous international mechanisms have recognised that the wearing of religious symbols, including the full-face veil, is an expressive act protected by the right to freedom of expression. This right embraces expression that is unpopular or even offensive
  • Any restriction on religious dress must comply with Article 19(3) and Article 18(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It must be provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary in a democratic society
  • Restrictions on religious dress cannot be justified by speculation or assumptions about their necessity in order to serve individual or public interests. They must be supported by robust evidence about all the relevant circumstances of any individual case
  • Prohibitions on religious dress, including the full-face veil, contribute to multiple and intersectional discrimination against Muslim women. They are counter-productive to the promotion of tolerance and pluralism in society and gender equality. Thus, any ban on wearing the full-face veil in public violates the State’s positive and negative obligations regarding non-discrimination.
The submissions point to the existence of a growing body of law at national level to support the position that general bans on the full-face veil are incompatible with international human rights protections. Numerous national courts have limited existing bans in recent years, including laws that are much more limited than the one at issue in S.A.S. v. France. At the same time, legislatures in many countries have resisted populist calls to restrict the wearing of full-face veils, doing this on the basis of their domestic and international commitments to human rights protection.

ARTICLE 19 therefore submits that general prohibitions on the full-face veil are not supported by international standards on the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and the prohibition on discrimination.

Read ARTICLE 19's submission to the European Court in full.
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