France’s ban on burqas and niqabs—traditional Muslim body and face coverings for women—went into effect today.  Even though women caught wearing them will be fined 150 euros (about $215), many are refusing to adhere to the new law.

In anticipation of the law, 59 people were arrested for holding an illegal protest over the weekend. A government-approved silent protest was scheduled for today.

French officials feel the burqa, which is a full-body covering that includes mesh fabric over the face, and the niqab, which is a full-face veil with that only has an opening for the eyes, is not in line with the culture of France and keeps Muslim women oppressed.

Although France has a substantial Muslim population, only about 2,000 women wear burqas or niqabs. However, if women are caught wearing the head and face coverings they’ll not only be fined, but if it’s determined that someone forced them to wear the covering, that person will also be fined 30,000 euros (approximately $42,400) and face a year in jail. Forcing a child to wear a burqa or niqab will result in a two-year prison sentence and a fine of 60,000 euros.

Critics of the new law claim it unfairly targets Muslims and infringes upon their rights to practice religion as they see fit. However, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy—who has been accused of pandering to conservatives—says the law fights against the oppression of women.

“Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected.” Mr Sarkozy said France was “an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women’s dignity, and of life together. It’s the fruit of centuries of efforts.”

France’s ban on traditional Muslim body and face coverings does not extend to the widely-worn hijab, which covers a woman’s hair and neck but not her face, and the chador, which covers her body but not her face.

Despite the law’s popularity with the overwhelming number of France’s citizens (around 82% of those polled), Amnesty International urged French officials not to enforce the law, claiming it violates the European human rights law.

In a related note, a poll conducted by a Washington D.C. based organization found a majority of those surveyed in Germany, Britain, and Spain, also supposed such a ban. Conversely, two out of three Americans were opposed to such laws.

What do you think? Should France ban women from wearing burqas? Sound off!

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