PARIS – A retired French schoolteacher went on trial Thursday on accusations that she attacked a Middle Eastern woman in a Paris shop because the woman wore a face-covering Muslim veil.
The defendant, 63-year-old retired English teacher Jeanne Ruby, is accused of biting, slapping and scratching a woman from the United Arab Emirates and her friend in a home decor shop in Paris. Prosecutor Anne de Fontette asked for a two-month suspended prison sentence and euro750 ($1,050) fine for Ruby, who was facing charges of "aggravated violence." Ruby was not present in court Thursday and was not represented by a lawyer.
The attack came in February, as France's conservative government was in the early stages of hammering out a plan to ban the wearing of face-covering burqa-style Muslim veils in public. The measure officially became law this week, though it won't actually be applied for six months.
Many Muslims have expressed fears the law would stigmatize them.
Government officials say that ensuring gender equality, women's dignity and security — and upholding a tradition of secularism — are the official reasons France is outlawing the fully covering Islamic veils, like "niqabs," which hide all but the eyes. Authorities insist the ban, which also applies to visiting foreigners, is not anti-Muslim.
In the attack, Ruby is accused of approaching the woman and pulling on her veil until it came off. Ruby — who has lived in Saudi Arabia, where many women wear such veils — told investigators that she was shocked to see such a garment in Paris, according to documents read in court.
She also said she felt personally "attacked" when she saw the veil.
In an interview in Le Parisien newspaper, where she was identified by the pseudonym Marlene, the defendant was quoted as saying: "I felt it was unacceptable for someone to wear a niqab in (France), the country of human rights. It's a muzzle, all that's missing is a leash, it's the negation of women."
Her name had not been released by authorities, but it came up Thursday in open court.
In discussions in parliament over the ban on face-covering veils, lawmakers sometimes compared the veil to a muzzle, or called it a "walking coffin."
The defendant also told Le Parisien that she didn't harm the woman, she just wanted to pull her niqab off.
Lawyer Louiza Bouziani, who represents the veil-wearer, Shaikha Alsuwaidi, and her companion from Qatar, Hessa Alsulaiti, who was also caught up in the alleged attack, said she was disappointed she didn't get a chance to question Ruby about her motives.
"What is most shocking is that after these two attacks, she acted like nothing happened and went off to go buy a television magazine," Bouziani told the court. "We are not sure that today this woman is really conscious of the seriousness of her action."
Bouziani said Alsuwaidi's two infants — aged three months and 16 months — were with the women during the struggle. She said neither woman has returned to France since the incident.
Bouziani asked for damages of euro10,000 for Alsuwaidi and euro5,000 for her companion. A verdict is expected Nov. 4.
The prosecutor argued that Ruby showed "great intolerance." She expressed the hope that when the anti-burqa law goes into effect in April, women who wear face-covering veils will be confronted by "police officers who are not as worked up as Mrs. Ruby."
The law, the first of its kind in western Europe, forbids veils such as the niqab or burqa anywhere in public and imposes a euro150 fine on anyone wearing one — and a euro30,000 fine on anyone who forces a woman to wear one.
The head of the CFCM umbrella organization of French Muslim groups said he worried that the law had given some here a sense of impunity.
"Some people who are a bit lacking in judgment can now get the idea they can do anything they want," said Mohammed Moussaoui, adding he was bracing for more such incidents.
"We're certainly worried about that. We're even worried that the violence could go beyond what we saw in this case," he said. "Still, we're confident that these sorts of cases will remain marginal."
Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.