Jakarta Globe, Cecile Azzaro | April 11, 2011
|A niqab-veiled woman speaks to reporters outside the Notre Dame cathedral|
in Paris. Two protesters wearing niqab veils on Monday after a ban on full-face
coverings went into effect. (AFP Photo)
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Paris. Police in France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, arrested two protesters wearing niqab veils on Monday after a ban on full-face coverings went into effect.
The women, part of a demonstration that erupted in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were detained for taking part in an unauthorized protest rather than for wearing their veils.
But, in theory, French officials can now slap fines on Muslim women who refuse orders to expose their faces when in public.
It “was not about arresting people because of wearing the veil. It was for not having respected the requirement to declare a demonstration,” said Alexis Marsan, a police spokesman.
Two women in niqabs, a woman wearing an Islamic head-scarf that did not cover her face and a protest organizer were arrested, Marsan said.
Separately, businessman and activist Rachid Nekkaz said that he and a female friend, who had worn a niqab, were arrested by police in front of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace. “We wanted to be fined for wearing the niqab, but the police didn’t want to issue a fine,” said Nekkaz, who promised to auction off a 2 million euro ($2.9 million) property to start a fund to pay off fines for veil-wearers.
One of those arrested in front of Notre Dame was 32-year-old Kenza Drider from the southern city of Avignon, who was due to appear on television and had become a symbol of France’s tiny community of niqab wearers.
“This law infringes my European rights, I cannot but defend them — that is to say, my freedom to come and go and my religious freedom,” Drider said.
Many French police officers fear that the law will be impossible to enforce, since they have not been empowered to use force to remove head coverings, and could face resistance in already tense immigrant districts.
“The law will be infinitely difficult to enforce, and will be infinitely rarely enforced,” said Manuel Roux, deputy head of a police union. “It’s not for the police to demonstrate zeal.”
He predicts that when patrol officers meet veiled women, they will simply try to explain the law to them and to persuade them to remove their face covering.
“If they refuse, that’s when things get really complicated. We have no power to force them,” he said. “I can’t begin to imagine we’re going to pay any attention to a veiled woman in a sensitive area, where men are proud.”
The law came into effect at an already fraught moment in relations between the state and France’s Muslim minority, with Sarkozy accused of stigmatizing Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far-right.
French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veils that are traditional in parts of Arabia and South Asia.
Many Muslims and activists say the right-wing president is targeting one of France’s most vulnerable groups to signal to anti-immigration voters.
But support for the ban bridges the left-right divide. Although the bulk of opposition lawmakers abstained from the vote on the law, 20 supported it and some feminists associated with the left supported a ban on a garment they felt demeaned women.
Anyone refusing to lift his or her veil to submit to an identity check can be taken to a police station. There, officers must try to persuade them to remove the garment, and can threaten fines.
A woman who repeatedly appears veiled in public can be fined 150 euros and ordered to attend re-education classes.
There are much more severe penalties for anyone found guilty of forcing someone else to hide his or her face “through threats, violence, constraint, abuse of authority or power for reason of their gender.”
The law, clearly aimed at men who force women to wear face-veils, imposes a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.