This week, the UN Human Rights Committee accused France of discriminating against Naima Mezhoud by banning her from attending a course at a public school while wearing a hijab, an Islamic headscarf that covers her hair. The case took place in 2010.
At the time, 35, Mezhoud, who is French, was enrolled in a management assistant course offered by an institution near Paris where teenagers are prohibited by law from wearing the hijab. When she arrived, the school principal prevented her from entering the premises.
In an official document, the Committee alleges that the attitude violated articles 18 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “The freedom to manifest religion covers the use of distinctive clothes or hats and therefore considers that the prohibition imposed on the author constitutes a restriction on the exercise of her right to freedom of religious expression”, declares the text.
The possible consequences of the decision are still unclear. However, human rights expert Nicolas Hervieu of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris believes that, according to legal precedents, France is unlikely to comply with the court’s decision.
This is because the decisions taken by the entity, which is composed of independent experts who oversee compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), are not mandatory. However, according to an optional protocol to the treaty, France has an international obligation to comply with them “in good faith”.
Even so, Mezhoud’s lawyer sees the UN’s advice as a step forward. “This is an important decision that shows that France has efforts to make in terms of human rights and, in particular, in the matter of respect for religious minorities and, more particularly, the Muslim community,” said Sefen Guez Guez.
This is not the first time the UN has condemned France for Islamophobia. In 2018, the Committee spoke out after two French women complained that in 2012 they were convicted of wearing the niqab, another type of veil worn by Muslim women.
At the time, the Committee said the ban disproportionately undermined the right of followers of Islam to express their religious beliefs. According to them, the attitude could lead them to be confined at home and marginalized.
Also on the occasion, the Committee gave the French government 180 days to account for its actions and recommended the payment of compensation to the women, but the French did not comment.
France is home to a large Muslim minority, and for years the country passed laws designed to protect its rigid form of secularism, known as laïcité, which President Emmanuel Macron said was under threat from radical Islam.
In 2004, France banned the wearing of hijab and other visible religious symbols in public schools by school-age youth. Six years later, in 2010, the country passed a law that stipulates that “no one may, in a public space, wear any article of clothing designed to hide the face” — which affects precisely those who wear veils such as the niqab.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, put this issue in check. This is because, in 2020, France introduced the mandatory use of masks, which is a type of face covering, to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
A report released by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France in 2019 revealed that 70% of Muslims who were victims of religious prejudice were women. In 2020, the French government forced the organization to close its doors.
The veil worn by followers of Islam is a cultural and religious symbol that exists in several versions and, most of the time, is used according to the desire of each woman. Wearing the robes is only enforced in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-occupied parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Although social pressure leads many Muslim women to wear the accessory in other regions of the planet, its use is not imposed by religion.
The Quran, the holy book of Islam, only suggests that followers of the religion cover their hair, ears and neck to better practice the so-called Islamic modesty. In the case of men, beards and turbans are the way many find to follow these guidelines.
In the holy book, the word used to describe the veil is “hajaba”, which means “to hide” or “to take out of sight” — hence the generic term “hijab” — and does not define exactly what the accessory should look like. Thus, there are several versions of the garment, which vary in colors and shapes.
The growth of Islamophobia in recent years, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, has given new meaning to the scarf. In addition to cultural and religious manifestation, the veil has become a symbol of resistance.