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On January 26, 2010, the President of the National Assembly published on the Assembly website the report prepared by the Parliamentary Commission to Study the Wearing of the Full Veil in France. [1] This Commission had been established six months earlier, on June 23, 2009. [2] France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, between five and six million people. The following are selected highlights from the report.

General Comments and Background

In the introduction, M. André Guerin, the President of the Commission, states that:

the report shows with precision how the wearing of the full veil infringes upon three principles that are included in the motto of the Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity. The full veil is an intolerable infringement on the freedom and the dignity of women. It is the denial of gender equality and of a mixed society. Finally, it is the will to exclude women from social life and the rejection of our common will to live together. [3]

He further notes, however, that the members of the Commission were not unanimous as to whether or not a law banning the full veil in public places should be adopted by Parliament. He finally states that in the Commission’s view the question of the wearing of the full veil is only the tip of the iceberg and that underneath lays Islamic fundamentalism. [4]

The Commission, which comprised 32 members representing all the parliamentary groups from the National Assembly, heard 211 witnesses and experts, sent questionnaires to the French Embassies located in the E.U. Members States, the United States, Canada, Turkey, and several Arab countries. The members of the Commission also went to Belgium. Finally, all the political groups represented in the Senate and the National Assembly were heard. Almost all of the hearings were public, and they have been posted on the website of the National Assembly. [5]

Characterization of Veils and the Wearing of Veils Under Islam in France

In the first part of the report, the Commission explains that the term “full veil” includes three categories of clothing, the niqab, which covers all the body and the face with the exception of the eyes; the sitar, an additional veil that covers the eyes so no part of the woman’s body is visible, the hands being covered by gloves; and the burqa, which entirely covers the body and has a mesh grille in front of the eyes. [6]

According to the experts on Islam who testified, including Mr. Dalil Boubakeur, former rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, and the members of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, these types of clothing existed before the advent of Islam, and the practice of wearing them “rests upon an interpretation of the Quran and of the Muslim tradition that is very questionable and held by a minority.” [7] Boubakeur testified that “the term burqa exists in the Arab literature available before Islam” and that “it is an archaism that has nothing to do with Islam.” As for the niqab, he testified that it originally was a piece of clothing designed to protect oneself from the sun, the wind, and sand. He further states that “certain scholars succeeded in imposing the niqab at the beginning of the XX [20th] century in Saudi Arabia.” [8]

According to Boubakeur and other Islamic scholars who testified “only the Islamic scarf covering the head and the neck could be considered as conforming to the principles of Islam.” [9] The report further mentioned the recent position of Mr. Mohammed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, who instructed a pupil at a secondary school in Cairo to remove her niqab and stated that “the niqab is a tradition, it has no connection with religion.” In October 2009, the Sheikh prohibited access to establishments managed by the university to students wearing the niqab. [10]

A study prepared in 2009 by the Interior Ministry shows that approximately 1,900 women are wearing the niqab in France. The study states that although this number is marginal, the phenomenon was non-existent as recently as the year 2000. It appears that so far no women are wearing the burqa in France. [11] As to the profile of these women, half of them are under 30 years old and 90% are under 40, two-thirds have French nationality, and one-fourth are converts to Islam. [12] From the testimony, the Commission found that there were three principal motivations behind the wearing of the niqab:

  • the desire for purity through the practice of a more austere form of the religion and to keep one's distance from a society perceived as perverted;
  • to conform with family and community values, to appear respectable to such community; or
  • coercion.

Based on the comments from all the experts on Islam who appeared before the Commission, the wearing of the full veil appears to be:

in a good number of cases the result of the influence of Salafist groups working in France and abroad for the re-Islamization of the populations of Muslim origin and the recognition, in the public space as well as in the law of the western societies, of rules flowing from a minority interpretation of the Quran and of Muslim tradition. [13] [Note: Salafism is a Sunni fundamentalist movement related to Wahhabism.]

According to the Ministry of Interior study, 40% of the women wearing the niqab in France are associated with Salafist groups. [14]

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Wearing of the Full Veil in Other Nations

The Commission also reviewed how the full-veil issue was handled in other countries. It found that in Central and Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, and Germany), the practice did not give rise to a public debate due to the near nonexistence of the practice of wearing such clothing and the absence of calls by radical groups for their use. [15]

In contrast, although wearing the full veil is recent and marginal there, the practice has provoked public discussion in Sweden and in Denmark, where the debate is very passionate. Both countries are very attached to the principle of gender equality. Denmark is studying means to limit this clothing without violating constitutional provisions. On January 19, 2010, the Danish Prime Minister stated that “the burqa and the niqab do not have their place in the Danish society. They symbolize a conception of the woman and of the humanity to which we are fundamentally opposed and that we want to fight in the Danish society.” [16]

In Belgium and The Netherlands the issue of the full veil has had an important place in the concerns of public opinion, political groups, and Parliament for several years. In Belgium, a draft bill to ban any person from circulating in public places with his/her face disguised, masked, or covered is pending in the Senate. There is also a call to create a parliamentary Commission to study the wearing of the burqa. In addition, local police regulations have prohibited the wearing of the full veil on the basis of maintaining public order or for identification purposes. [17] In the Netherlands, following a 2005 resolution of the Second Chamber of Parliament asking the government to issue a general prohibition on the wearing of the full veil in public places, the government set forth a working group to study possible solutions. The group rejected a general ban and instead recommended a ban on wearing certain clothing in specific places or for public service occupations, such as, for example, in education. Despite the conclusions of the working group, the debate continues. The Second Chamber adopted another resolution permitting the reduction of social assistance to women wearing the burqa. A draft bill proposing to modify the penal code to provide that the wearing of the full veil in public places is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum imprisonment of 12 days or a maximum fine of €3,350 is pending. The government has also prepared a draft law banning the full veil in primary and secondary schools. [18]

Finally, in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, the full veil has not been an issue. The Commission noted that these countries have legal systems that strongly protect individual rights and tend to better accommodate religious practices. The Commission noted, however, that in Great Britain, accommodation of Islamic law has gone so far that some London districts and suburbs have received the nickname of Londonistan. [19]

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The Veil in Light of French Values

In the second part of the report, the Commission discusses how the wearing of the full veil is a practice that is seen as contrary to French values.

Several witnesses testified that freedom to wear clothing of their choice did not exist in some Parisian suburbs, as the social pressure to wear the full veil is so strong that they have to conform. It is feared that if the wearing of the full veil is normalized, the number of women wearing it will increase, as this practice will be forced on them by their communities. Social services reported several cases near Paris of eight-year old girls fully covered by veils. In a high school near Lyon, a group of Muslim students asked the headmaster to provide them with a room where they could change their clothes to wear clothes similar to those worn by other students, as their parents were forcing them to wear clothes hiding all signs of femininity. [20]

Other witnesses stressed some similarities between the wearing of the full veil and the obligations imposed by certain sects. One witness stated

[W]e fight against the sects … as we consider that they enslave the spirits, which lose their freedom of thought. … The wearing of the full veil is the standard of the salafists, considered as a sect that is offensive to most Muslims. Why should we make an exception for this sect that advocates a voluntary servitude resulting in a sort of civil auto-mutilation by social invisibility? [21]

In view of this testimony, the Commission concludes that

[t]he practice of the wearing of the full veil is an infringement of the principle of freedom. One cannot liken it to the simple will to be noticed, because it is very often worn as a result of varying degrees of inexplicit pressures or of explicit ones. The full veil is the symbol of subservience, the ambulatory expression of a denial of liberty that touches a specific category of the population: women. In this it also constitutes a negation of the principle of equality. [22]

The report further lists the constitutional provisions and international agreements signed by France that set forth the fundamental principle of gender equality. The full veil is seen as contrary to these provisions. It is considered “a regression of the rights and the dignity of the woman in our society…. A form of sexual apartheid with on one side the world of men that is open and on the other side the world of women, constrained and closed… a uniform that reduces the woman to anonymity.” The report continues that the veil results in “the disappearance of the woman in her specificity. … It takes her away from the public place.” [23]

As for the principle of fraternity, witnesses and experts stressed the importance of the face in our social life, the face as “the mirror of the soul.” They further noted that the wearing of the veil constitutes the negation of the contact with others. It also imposes an unequal situation to the other who is seen without seeing. The Commission noted that most of the witnesses who testified agreed that the wearing of the veil was an infringement on the social code that constitutes minimal rules for living together in our society. [24]

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Commission Recommendations

The third part of the report addresses the Commission recommendations and the legal basis on which some of these recommendations can be put into place without violating either the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights.[25] The Commission first calls on Parliament to adopt a resolution declaring that “the wearing of the full veil is contrary to the values of the Republic.” The Commission, however, is not unanimous regarding the adoption of a general law banning the full veil in public spaces. A majority of the Commission members favored adopting a law prohibiting the full veil as well as any other clothing entirely covering the face in public spaces, based upon the notion of public order. Additional recommendations include:

  • conducting mediation with women wearing the veil and their families to better understand their motivations;
  • notifying the competent authorities of any minor wearing the full veil, within the framework of the protection of minors in danger;
  • reinforcing civic education, in particular the teaching of gender equality, within the framework of the integration contract that immigrants who wish to settle in France have to sign;
  • adding gender equality and secularism to the values that persons wishing to obtain a long-stay visa need to be aware of;
  • refusing the issuance of a residence card or French citizenship to individuals who practice their religion in a way incompatible with the values of the Republic, in particular, with the principle of gender equality. It should be considered a lack of integration with French society;
  • adopting a provision prohibiting the covering of one’s face in a public space;
  • taking into account, in asylum requests, wearing of the full veil as an indication of a more general persecution;
  • introducing legislation that would make psychological violence between a couple a criminal offense; and
  • adding incitement to infringe upon the dignity of the person to article 24 of the Law on the Freedom of the Press, which already punishes incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons based on racial, religious, ethnic, or national origin.

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Further Steps

Following the publication of the report, the Prime Minister, François Fillon, asked the Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest administrative court) to study the various legal grounds for a ban on the full veil that would be as wide as possible, in order to prepare a draft law to be submitted to Parliament no later than the end of March.[26]

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For more information on France see:

Prepared by Nicole Atwill, Senior Foreign Law Specialist

February 2010

  1. Assemblée Nationale, Rapport d’information au nom de la mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national, Jan. 26, 2010, available at http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/pdf/rap-info/i2262.pdf (external link) (PDF) [Back to Text]
  2. See Nicole Atwill, France: Creation of Commission to Study Wearing of Burqa, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR, July 2, 2009, available at http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/ servlet/lloc_news?disp3_l205401399_text [Back to Text]
  3. Rapport, supra at 13. [Back to Text]
  4. Id., at 13. [Back to Text]
  5. Id. at 20-21. [Back to Text]
  6. Id. at 25-26. [Back to Text]
  7. Id. at 25, 36, & 38. [Back to Text]
  8. Id. at 26-27. [Back to Text]
  9. Id. at 27. [Back to Text]
  10. Id. at 40. [Back to Text]
  11. Id. at 28. [Back to Text]
  12. Id. at 42. [Back to Text]
  13. Id. at 56.[Back to Text]
  14. Id. at 60. [Back to Text]
  15. Id. at 67-69. [Back to Text]
  16. Id. at 71-72. [Back to Text]
  17. Id. at 73-76. [Back to Text]
  18. Id. at 77-81. [Back to Text]
  19. Id. at 81-84. [Back to Text]
  20. Id. at 97-100. [Back to Text]
  21. Id. at 101-104. [Back to Text]
  22. Id. at 107. [Back to Text]
  23. Id. at 107-113. [Back to Text]
  24. Id. at 116-122. [Back to Text]
  25. Id. at 129-185. [Back to Text]
  26. Le Premier Ministre demande au Conseil d’Etat d’étudier les solutions juridiques pour interdire le port du voile intégral, Prime Minister’s website, Jan., 29, 2010, available at http://www.gouvernement.fr/premier-ministre/le-premier-ministre-demande-au-conseil-d-etat-d-etudier-les-solutions-juridiques-po (external link). [Back to Text]

Last Updated: 03/28/2014