Muslim women flout French ban of veil

Paris, France - Kenza Drider's posters for the French presidential race are ready to go, months before the official campaign begins. There she is, the "freedom candidate," pictured standing in front of a line of police — a forbidden veil hiding her face.

Drider declared her longshot candidacy Thursday, the same day that a French court fined two women who refuse to remove their veils. All three are among a group of women mounting an attack on the law that has banned the garments from the streets of France since April, and prompted similar moves in other European countries.

They are bent on proving that the ban contravenes fundamental rights and that women who hide their faces stand for freedom, not submission.

"When a woman wants to maintain her freedom, she must be bold," Drider told The Associated Press in an interview.

President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly disagrees, and says the veil imprisons women. Polls show that most French people support the ban, which authorities estimate affects fewer than 2,000 women who wore the veil before the ban.

Drider declared her candidacy Thursday in Meaux, the city east of Paris run by top conservative lawmaker and Sarkozy ally Jean-Francois Cope, who championed the ban.

"I have the ambition today to serve all women who are the object of stigmatization or social, economic or political discrimination," she said. "It is important that we show that we are here, we are French citizens and that we, as well, can bring solutions to French citizens."

Two other women arrested wearing veils in Meaux — while trying to deliver a birthday cake to Cope — were fined in court Thursday, one euro120, the other euro80.

They want to push their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

"We cannot accept that women be punished because they are openly practicing their religious convictions. We are demanding the application of European rights," said one of those convicted, Hind Ahmas.

With Islam the second religion in France and numbers of faithful growing, there are worries that veiled Muslim women could compromise the nation's secular foundations and undermine gender equality and women's dignity. There are also concerns that practices like wearing full veils could open the door to a radical form of Islam. Lawmakers banned Muslim headscarves in classrooms in 2004.

Few Muslim women in France cover their faces. Most who veil themselves wear the "niqab," a filmy cloth attached to the headscarf that covers all but the eyes. The law also affects the burqa, with just a mesh covering over the eyes, worn largely in Afghanistan.

Belgium passed a similar face veil ban that took effect in July, and the Netherlands announced Friday it has drawn up legislation to outlaw Muslim face veils. A draft law has been approved in Italy.

In France, the veil ban was also seen as a political maneuver by the unpopular Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, which Cope chairs, to entice deeply conservative and far-right voters.

Flouting the French measure outlawing face veils in all public places can lead to a fine of euro150 and, in some cases, citizenship classes. However, thus far there have been few legal consequences.

According to the Interior Ministry, 146 women have been given citations by police but only a handful have reportedly been forced to take the next step — appear before a judge for a possible fine. The Justice Ministry says figures are not yet available.

"I tried to understand this law and what I understood is that this is a law which puts us under house arrest," Drider said, referring to women who choose to stay home rather than remove their face veils, or risk arrest.

What the law has done, she says, is give citizens the right to insult veiled women.

Drider and others say that many women who refuse to remove their veils become shut-ins rather than go outside and risk a citation, or insults. One woman in a long black robe was seen recently in a chic Paris neighborhood wearing a surgical mask on her face — one of several tricks developed to get around the ban.

Drider, 32, who has worn a face veil for 13 years, hasn't shirked from denouncing the ban in the past. She was the only veiled woman to testify before an information commission of lawmakers studying a potential ban before the law was passed.

With four children, Drider says she goes about the southern city of Avignon, where she lives, facing down insults but left alone by police.

Ahmas, 32, from Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a northeast Paris suburb, looked for trouble when she tried to deliver an almond cake to Cope, the mayor of Meaux, with another veiled woman. The gesture was not without a touch of humor: in French, "almond" sounds like "fine."

The women, while intent on showing the power behind the veil, have a male backer. Rachid Nekkaz, a wealthy businessman revolted by the street ban, has promised to pay fines for women sanctioned for breaking the law. With his association, Don't Touch My Constitution, he heads Drider's support committee for the presidency.

For Nekkaz, the Meaux case will be the first in France in which a conviction for veiled women could stick. He wants to see an appeal eventually go to the highest French court, then on to the European Court of Human Rights and calculates that this could happen in 2014.

Drider has obstacles to overcome, too, like getting 500 mayors to back her candidacy, a requirement for anyone running for the presidential elections in April and May. With more than 36,000 mayors in France, she thinks this is doable — despite her status as a lawbreaker.

Both women insist that neither Drider's candidacy for the presidential race nor the Meaux court case are a provocation because their aim is to set aright a measure they say has skewed French values and compromised women's rights.

"My candidacy is to say the real problem in France is not us ... The real problem in France is really women's freedom ... whatever their religion," she said. "So let's not focus on what I wear. Let's deal with the real problems. My candidacy is really for that, to say don't stop at what I wear but go much deeper."