The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has upheld Belgium’s ban on the Islamic full-face veil, rejecting a legal challenge by two Muslim women wearing the niqab.
The court sitting in Strasbourg, France, ruled on Tuesday (11 July) that the 2011 Belgian law banning clothing that partly or totally covers the face was not discriminatory and did not violate the right to respect for private and family life, nor freedom of religion.
In its ruling, the court argued that Belgium had the right to consider this ban, however controversial, “necessary in a democratic society” – because it seeks to guarantee the conditions of “living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
“The question whether the full-face veil was accepted in the Belgian public sphere was… a choice of society,” it said in a statement.
The Belgian case was brought by two Muslim women – one Belgian national and one Moroccan. Both women said they chose of their own free will to wear the niqab and claimed their rights had been infringed and the law was discriminatory.
If they continued wearing the full veil in public, they would risk fines and up to seven days in jail.
The judges found the sanctions tied to the ban “proportionate”, noting that jail sentences were only meant for repeat offenders.
Belgium banned face veils in 2011 on security grounds, to allow police to identify people. Some also argued the niqab and burqa were symbols of the oppression of women, and the lower house of parliament passed the law almost unanimously.
Belgium followed closely in France’s footsteps with the legislation, and several other countries in Europe have since introduced partial bans on face veils, including the Nethelands.
Critics of such laws say they could end up excluding women, leaving those who wear the full face veil holed up at home.
The ECHR had already upheld France’s ban on full-face veils in 2014.
Felix Dappah with agency reports