One year of France's burka ban yields 20 fines and no men prosecuted
France’s law banning face-covering garments in public came into force a year ago – a defence of secular values and women’s rights, according to its proponents, a bad case of Islamophobia, according to its critics.
The French ministry of the interior says police stopped and checked some 354 women since the law was passed. With 299 reports filed, about 20 people were given fines of up to 150 euros each.
While the interior ministry said the law had been applied with care, those on the receiving end – eseentially Muslim women wearing the all-covering niqab - have a very different story.
“My nightmare has become a reality,” says one young woman in the documentary Outlawed burka. “When you go outside, you're stomach's in knots. You're always looking over your shoulder to see if there's a police car nearby , always worried about being insulted.
“I still go out, but this law has given rise to a lot of fear.”
Fear over the endless identity checks, the insults, of being taken into a police station and questioned at length ...
Life has become very difficult for the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 women wearing the full veil in France. Sociologist and documentary film maker Agnes de Féo wanted to give them a voice.
She got to know 100 such women and says their experiences of life under the ban are very different.
“I've met quite a number of women who have no problem with police. They can walk in front of policemen and they've never been arrested,” she told RFI. “On the contrary, you have some women they've been arrested four times, fined two or three times.”
In January French Interior Minister Claude Guéant told the National Assembly that the number of women wearing the full-face veil had halved since the law was introduced.
But de Féo says the ban has had the opposite effect.
“A lot of women are wearing niqab since the law and these women are very aggressive,” she says. “Sometimes they are very against the state. They say they're doing resistance, a fight against the state. They say the more people insult me the more I am sure to be on the right path.”
At least one claimed to have adopted the niqab because of the legislation.
Around 350 women are now members of les Amazones de la liberté (Amazons of freedom), a group that gives moral and legal support, as well as campaigning for the law to be repealed.
“This law is a disaster,” says the group's founder Lila Sitar. “Hundreds of women are now living in fear, deprived of their basic rights, tracked down by the police like criminals. The number of physical and verbal assaults has literally exploded. We don't even count the verbal abuse anymore, it's become a daily occurence.”
The crime of wearing a niqab in public is judged to be as serious as using your phone while driving a car. You might be given a warning, an on-the-spot fine or be asked to do community service. But the women say they're badly treated by the police.
For Agnes de Féo police exceed their power by habitually taking the women in for questioning, although the law only obliges them to produce identification.
“They have to stay sometimes four hours and these policemen don't know the law well because she has only to identify herself,” she claims . “But sometimes even if they've identified themselves in the street they take them into the police station.”
One of the arguments justifying the ban was that women were forced to wear cover by husbands or male family members.
But both the Amazones de la liberté and Agnes de Féo say the vast majority of women wearing the veil are divorced or single.
Although the law provides for stiff penalties for anyone forcing a woman to wear the niqab, no man has yet been charged with such an offence.