The European Court of Human Rights announced this week that it is upholding a ban on full-face veils in Belgium.
The Belgian law, which was passed in 2011, bans people from wearing clothing that partially or totally covers the face in public. The punishment for violating the ban ranges from a fine to a prison sentence of up to seven days, for repeat offenders.
It was challenged by two Muslim women living in Belgium who wanted to wear niqabs, a type of face veil that covers everything but the eyes. The women argued that the ban was discriminatory, and violated their religious freedom and rights to privacy.
The European Court of Human Rights is an international court tasked with ruling on alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court announced on Tuesday that the Belgian ban did not violate the Convention on Human Rights and that it in fact helped “guarantee the conditions of ‘living together’ and the ‘protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’”
In addition, the court reaffirmed the right of Belgium’s government and society to determine for itself “whether and to what extent a restriction on the right to manifest one religion or convictions was ‘necessary.’”
“In adopting the provisions in question, the Belgian State had sought to respond
to a practice that it considered to be incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and more generally the establishment of human relations, which were indispensable for life in society,” the court concluded, according to its press release. “It was a matter of protecting a condition of interaction between individuals which, for the State, was essential to ensure the functioning of a democratic society.”
The two women at the heart of the case were Samia Belcacemi, a Belgian national, and Yamina Oussar, a Moroccan national living in Belgium. The women claimed to the court that they had freely decided to wear the niqab because of their religious convictions.
After the ban was enacted on June 1, 2011, Belcacemi had initially decided to continue wearing the wear in public, but eventually decided to remove it temporarily, “being afraid that she might be stopped in the street and then heavily fined or even sent to prison.”
Oussar, on the other hand, decided to stay at home because of the ban, which restricted her private and social life.
In its ruling on Tuesday, the court took into account a previous decision it had made in July 2014 about a similar face veil ban in France that came into affect in 2010. In that case, the European Court of Human Rights stated that the preservation of an idea of “living together” was an “legitimate aim” of the French government.
The Belgian government was party to the French defense in that case.
Also on Tuesday, the court announced a similar decision against a Belgian woman named Fouzia Dakir who was arguing against a face veil ban adopted in June 2008 by three Belgian municipalities. In that case, the court found that a restriction of Dakir’s ability to wear niqab was “necessary” “in a democratic society.”
The women have three months to appeal the rulings against them.
The court’s decision comes amidst growing animosity towards the niqab in Europe. Along with Belgium and France, Austria, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands also impose ban or partial bans of the niqab.
In March, the European Court of Justice decided that bans on wearing headscarves in the workplace does not necesarily count as direct discrimination ― as long as all employees are required to dress neutrally and restricted from wearing any “any political, philosophical or religious sign.”