France’s Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday banning “clothing intended to hide the face” in public space.
While the words "women," "Muslim," and "veil" are not mentioned in any of its seven articles, the bill is widely viewed as a ban on burqa-style Islamic veils, which cover all but the eyes of a woman.
Last year, shortly before the French Parliament began an initial inquiry on the issue, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared his support for a ban on the full-body garment, saying it “is not a sign of religion; it is a sign of subservience.”
“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” he said during his first presidential address to a joint session of France’s two houses of parliament.
Sarkozy’s sentiments have been shared by women’s rights campaigners – including some Islamic groups – who have been seeking to curb the small but growing trend of wearing burqas or niqabs among France’s five million Muslims.
Under the new law, anyone caught wearing “in public space … clothing intended to hide the face” will be handed a $190 fine. And anyone who forces another person to wear such an item of clothing will be punished by a fine of as much as $38,000 and a year in jail (doubled if the victim is a minor).
While some critics have slammed the bill for restricting the expression of religion, supporters – including some Muslim leaders – point out that the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam.
Abdel Mut al-Bayyumi, a leader cleric at Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, said the full-face veil “has no basis in Islamic law and there is nothing in the Koran or Sunna that supports it.”
“I personally support [the ban] and many of my brothers in the Islamic Research Academy support it,” he noted Wednesday. “I used to feel dismayed when I saw some of the sisters [in France] wearing the niqab. This does not give a good impression of Islam.”
Still, the proposed ban has drawn notable opposition, including from U.S. President Barack Obama, who said last year that countries should "not try to suppress their (people of all faiths) traditions, but rather ... open up opportunities."
"I won't take responsibility for how other countries are going to approach this," Obama stated. "I will tell you that in the United States, our basic attitude is that we're not going to tell people what to wear."
One feminist organization, in response, called Obama's remark a "slap in the face for millions of women".
With the Senate having voted 246-1 on Tuesday in favor of the ban, and the lower house, the National Assembly, having voted 335-1 in July, the bill is now set to come into force early next year unless the Constitutional Council overturns it within the one-month window it has to do so.
If unchallenged, France would be the first European country to pass such a law.
The law is expected to directly affect less than 2,000 women.