A Muslim husband and wife are using a British legal team to launch a landmark human rights challenge to the French ban on face-covering veils.
The couple are taking the French government to the European Court of Human Rights over its prohibition on wearing the niqab and burka in a case of importance across the European Union.
They are seeking damages and a ruling that the ban on the full-face veil is “unnecessary, disproportionate and unlawful”.
They also contend the blanket ban restricts their right to free movement across the EU.
The husband is a French national living with his wife and two children in the West Midlands.
They are being represented by Robina Shah from the Birmingham-based Immigration Advisory Service, who has lodged their application with the human rights court in Strasbourg, and barrister Ramby de Mello.
Ms Shah said: “The case clearly is of importance to my clients. As a result of the ban they have had to leave their country of nationality, as the ban restricts their freedom of choice, and that of their daughters.”
The couple wish to remain anonymous, saying there is “considerable hostility” in both the UK and France to Muslim women who go fully veiled in public.
Documents sent to Strasbourg say the couple “wish to reside and work in France”, where they have strong family connections.
Because of the recent laws banning the wearing of full-face veils, “they have considerable reservations about living there on a permanent basis”.
The application states the principal applicant is the husband who “expects and instructs” his wife to wear the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, as well as the niqab, a face veil that only leaves an opening for the eyes.
But he will be at risk of prosecution under French law if he crosses the Channel because he will admit that “he expects and instructs his wife to wear the niqab/burqa”.
The wife, the second applicant in the case, is not forced by her husband to wear the niqab, “but he expects her to do so in public in keeping with his religious and cultural expectation and his authority as her husband”.
She “respects and follows” her husband’s instructions “out of her own free will”, the Strasbourg court is being told.
She says she personally likes to cover up “on a regular basis in keeping with her faith”.
She is seeking £10,000 damages for “injury to feelings” caused by the alleged French breach of human rights laws.
When she wears the niqab “she feels at inner peace with herself and her surroundings and is cocooned from the outer world”, say her lawyers.
At such times she can “concentrate on her innermost thoughts” and “manifest her religious and personal beliefs in public places”.
If she meets friends or associates in public places she may choose not to wear the niqab “as on these occasions she is not seeking to manifest her religious and personal beliefs in a public place”.
Both husband and wife also expect their elder daughter, also a French national, to wear a niqab and burqa.
Mother and daughter do not expect to be able to cover up on occasions when a security check is necessary, or when going to the bank or travelling through airports, say their lawyers.
There may also be occasions when the niqab or burqa would be unacceptable for public safety reasons.
The wife’s case before the European court is that the French ban breaches the European Convention on Human Rights in many respects.
These include the right to respect for private and family life and not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
The ban is also alleged to interfere with the wife’s right to freedom of expression and “to dress as she pleases in public and to manifest her religious and personally held beliefs in public.”
Her lawyers argue Muslim women in France are “not able to exercise their rights free from coercion, harassment and discrimination.”
The couple also rely on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which their lawyers argue offers them an even greater level of protection throughout the European Union.
They state in the Strasbourg documents: “The applicants, as French nationals exercising EU rights to free movement in the UK, have no alternative remedy other than an application to the (European) court.”
Denying them the right to go to the court would leave them in the unsatisfactory position of having to return to France and risk prosecution, or remain in the UK for fear of persecution, interfering with their right to free movement.
The couple’s lawyers argue their fundamental rights are also protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.