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Restricting Women’s Clothing – and Freedom – in Belgium

European Court Upholds Ban on Face Coverings

Salma, a 22-year-old French national living in Belgium who chooses to wear the niqab after converting to Islam, gives an interview to Reuters television outside the Belgian Parliament in Brussels in this April 26, 2010 file photo. © 2010 Reuters

The European Court of Human Rights has struck another blow to women’s autonomy, ruling in favor of bans on full-face veils enacted in 2011 in Belgium.

Echoing a 2014 ruling in S.A.S v. France, the court cited the vague idea of “living together” as justification for the bans. Nowhere does the European Convention on Human Rights state that “living together” can be adequate grounds for restricting rights. The court accepted the Belgian government’s argument that wearing clothing that obstructs the face is “incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and, more generally the establishment of human relations.”

Perversely, this week’s ruling could hinder exactly this kind of social interaction, isolating women who elect to wear full-face veils. Two of the women who brought the case said the ban had severely curtailed their lives, forcing them to abandon the niqab or remain housebound.

There is no denying that the ban’s impact falls most heavily on women who wear the full-face veil – even the court acknowledges that Muslim women are disproportionately affected. After all, what other face-covering garment is regularly worn in public? Despite the blatantly unequal burden on women, the court declined to rule the law discriminatory, finding it is not unreasonable or beyond justification, while dismissing concerns about the undue burden placed on women.

Just as women should not be forced to wear the niqab or other religious dress, they should not be denied the choice or punished for doing so. Nor should they – or other citizens – be subject to unreasonable or discriminatory limitations on their freedom of religion or right to express it. These rulings embolden other governments to dictate how women can dress, and send a dangerous message that it is acceptable to curtail women’s freedom of expression and belief.

Fostering human relations is a laudable goal. But forcing women to choose between wearing what they want and being able to appear in public isn’t the way to do it.

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