Veiled woman seeks French presidency

Kenza Drider declares her candidacy for the French presidency on Thursday and shows off a campaign poster of herself, hidden by a veil and standing in front of a line of police.
Kenza Drider, among a group of women fighting France's ban against being veiled in public, annouces her candidacy for president of the country on Thursday, standing in front of the Meaux courthouse. (Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press)

Kenza Drider declared her candidacy for the French presidency on Thursday and showed off a campaign poster of a veiled woman standing in front of a line of police.

The announcement of Drider’s longshot candidacy came the same day a French court fined two women who refuse to remove their veils. Drider has her campaign posters ready to go, months before the campaign begins — and before she has the required signatures of 500 mayors in the country.

She is 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.

Most French support ban

President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly disagrees, and says the veil imprisons women. Polls indicate 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 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, They want to push their case to the European Court of Human Rights.  

 "We cannot accept that women be punished because they are openly practising their religious convictions," said Hind Ahmas, who was fined about $160 US. "We are demanding the application of European rights."

Headscarves in schools banned first

With Islam the second religion in France and the 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 applies to 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 manoeuvre 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 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 appear before a judge for a possible fine. 

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 neighbourhood wearing a surgical mask on her face — one of several tricks developed to get around the ban.

Veil ban makes women shut-ins

"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.

Drider, 32, who has worn a face veil for 13 years, 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.

Rachid Nekkaz, a wealthy businessman revolted by the street ban has promised to pay any fines resulting from it. He also 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.