Today was the first day of France's ban on full Islamic face-coverings. Under the law promoted by President Nicolas Sarkozy, any Muslim woman wearing a face veil (niqab) is now banned from all public places in France, including when walking down the street, going to the hospital or picking up her children from school. Women in niqabs will only be allowed inside a place of worship or a private car, although they risk being stopped by police if they drive. Women in face veils risk a $195 fine or citizenship lessons. Those who force a woman to wear the face veil face even tougher penalties - of up to $41,000 and a year in prison.
The government estimates that about 2,000 women cover their faces in France, out of a total Muslim population of between four and six million. Women who wear headscarves are not covered under the new law; however, France banned headscarves and all religious symbols in schools in 2004.
Belgium passed a similar ban on the niqab last year and other European countries are eyeing legislation, but France is the first to enforce it.
The legislation has been spearheaded by Sarkozy, who also says it is critical to ensure the respect of women's rights and the separation of church and state. France has been struggling with this issue for a long time. There is a general feeling that French cultural identity is at risk as the Muslim population continues to grow in France (and other European countries for that matter) .
Is it wrong for the government to ban women from dressing how they want? Is this really an issue about Islamophobia or is the wearing of the niqab really a political and religious statement meant to keep women in their place? I don't know the answer. It will be interesting to see what affect, if any, this will have on preserving French culture and whether Islamic women will become more empowered.