• French ban on full-face veils starts today
  • Risk of fine if women refuse to show faces
  • Muslims women say they are not oppressed
  • Libs back minister who called burqa alien

They are the women prepared to defy France for the burqa.

From today French police have the power to stop Muslim women wearing full-face veils and to threaten them with fines or prison if they refuse to expose their faces.

All over France posters have been put up reminding veil-clad women that "the Republic lives with its face uncovered".

Last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through a controversial law banning Muslim women from wearing burqas or niqabs in public. He said the law was to increase security but claimed it would liberate Muslim women from the oppression of their veil.

Any woman who refuse to lift her veil can be taken to a police station, fined 150 euros ($205) and ordered to attend re-education classes.

Anyone found guilty of forcing a woman to wear face veils in public or in private faces a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.

However, some women have vowed to defy the law.

"I will not obey it," said Wahiba Mebrek, 25, from the suburb of Villepinte, north of Paris. "I will only respect laws of the French Republic which are not in contradiction with me, my religion and my faith," she added.

She is angry the Government and media peddled this image of them as being oppressed. For her, it was a conscious decision, made by her and husband when they became devout Muslims eight years ago.

Violent reaction

Hind*, a 31-year-old single mother from the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois outside Paris, switched from the "miniskirt to the veil" after converting to Islam six years ago.

She said that her wearing of the veil had provoked hostile, even violent reactions in the street. She was recently attacked in front of her daughter by a couple.

"People's reactions weren't as violent until this issue was mediatised. Now that the law has passed, they feel that their violent behaviour towards us is justified," she said.

"People have the impression that we are totally cut off from the world, but we have normal relationships like everyone else, we are accessible."

Hind will not take off her niqab, if asked by police. "Never ever will I apply this law," she said. "It is not up to the government to meddle in my private life and my beliefs."

French officials estimate that about 2000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veil.

Many Muslims and human rights groups accuse Mr Sarkozy of targeting one of France's most vulnerable and isolated groups to signal to anti-immigration voters that he shares their fear that Islam is a threat to French culture.

Years of abuse

Other critics worry the law may be hard to enforce, since it had to be drawn up without reference to religion to ban any kind of face covering in public and since police officers will not be allowed to remove women's head coverings.

But for other women, wearing the veil was not a choice.

Zeina*, 31, was forced to wear the niqab by her abusive ex-husband. She lived with his abuse until one day, a neighbour saw her bruises and took her to a women's refuge. She details the ordeal in her autobiography, Sous Mon Niqab (Under my Veil).

"When I wore the niqab, I felt excluded from the world, from society," she said. "Taking it off was a sort of freedom, a liberty for me."

But she opposes the law, saying it will further oppress women. Unable to wear their veil in public, Zeina fears their abuse may go unnoticed as they will be confined to their homes.

As for those women who wear their niqab in the street for Friday afternoon prayers at their local mosque, they too risk being fined.

This is what worries Mrs Mebrek.

"The veil is an exterior manifestation of my religion but in a secular country, I am free to do so," she said. "All this will stop from April 11."