A court in suburban Paris on Thursday handed out fines to the first two women tried in France for violating a ban on wearing face-covering garments in public.
Hind Ahmas, 32, and Najate Naitali, 36, were both cited in May for wearing niqabs, traditional Muslim face veils, while trying to enter the Meaux town hall with a birthday cake for the mayor. Meaux is a suburb of Paris, and its mayor, Jean-Francois Cope, helped push the "burqa ban" through France's parliament last year. He also leads President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party.
Ahmas received a €120 ($161) fine on Thursday and vowed to bring her case up before the European Court of Human Rights. Naitali received an €80 fine in absentia -- after having been denied entry for refusing to take off her niqab.
"(This) violates European laws," Ahmas told reporters after the hearing in Meaux. "For us, the question isn't the amount of the fine but the principle. We can't accept that women are sentenced because they are freely expressing their religious beliefs."
They reportedly carried an almond cake for Mayor Cope as part of a symbolic protest, as the French words for both "almonds" and "fines" sound similar.
'The Problem is Not the Fine'
France's so-called "burqa ban" is one of several measures passed in Europe last year against clothing that covers the face. The controversial law -- which Muslims call discriminatory -- came into force in April. Many women have been stopped by police for violations, but Ahmas and Naitali were the first women to challenge their citations to court.
"The problem is not the fine," their lawyer told the German news agency DPA on Thursday. "The problem is that these women are effectively under house arrest. That's the real punishment."
The French proceedings were closely followed by governments around Europe. Italy and Belgium have passed similar legislation, while Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany have debated them. A number of nations already forbid face-covering garments for state employees while they're on the job -- including teachers -- but a full ban has never been tested by modern European democracies.
"(The ban) simply violates my individual freedom, my freedom of thought, of religious expression and practice," Ahmas told the Daily Telegraph, "and I have absolutely no intention of applying it."
The French law has popular support, and some politicians claim they want to save Muslim women from the backward influence of religiously conservative men.
"There are extremist gurus out there and we must stop their influence and barbaric ideologies," a Communist Party lawmaker named André Gerin told reporters last year, according to USA Today. "Covering one's face undermines one's identity, a woman's femininity and gender equality."
But the French law makes no reference to religion or gender. It forbids face coverings but makes a number of exceptions -- for motorcycle helmets, for example, or fencing and ski masks.
A number of niqab-wearing activists turned out in Meaux on Thursday to support Ahmas and Naitali. One was Kenza Drider, who said she hoped to challenge President Sarkozy in a run for president next year.