Burqa Furor Scrambles the Political Debate in France

Burqa Furor Scrambles the Political Debate in France

By | 2009-08-31T20:00:00-04:00 August 31st, 2009|Reports|0 Comments

PARIS — It is a measure of France’s confusion about Islam and its own Muslim citizens that in the political furor here over “banning the burqa,” as the argument goes, the garment at issue is not really the burqa at all, but the niqab.

A burqa is the all-enveloping cloak, often blue, with a woven grill over the eyes, that many Afghan women wear, and it is almost never seen in France. The niqab, often black, leaves the eyes uncovered.

Still, a movement against it that started with a Communist mayor near Lyon has gotten traction within France’s ruling center-right party, which claims to be defending French values, and among many on the left, who say they are defending women’s rights. A parliamentary commission will soon meet to investigate whether to ban the burqa — in other words, any cloak that covers most of the face.

The debate is indicative of the deep ambivalence about social customs among even a small minority of France’s Muslim citizens, and of the signal fear that France’s principles of citizens’ rights, equality and secularism are being undermined.

French discomfort with organized religion, dating from the 1789 revolution and the disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church, is aggravated by these foreign customs, which are associated in the Western mind with repression of women.

André Gerin, a Communist Party legislator and mayor of Vénissieux, a Lyon suburb with many Muslims from North Africa, began the affair in late June by initiating a motion, signed by 57 other legislators, calling for the parliamentary commission.

"The burqa is the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Gerin said. "Islamism really threatens us." In a letter to the government, he wrote: "It is time to take a stand on this issue that concerns thousands of citizens who are worried to see imprisoned, totally veiled women."

A few days later, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "the burqa is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic." He did not say how it would be made unwelcome, however, or whether he intended to extend existing laws that already ban head scarves or any other religious symbol from public schools.

For Mr. Sarkozy, who defends participation in the Afghan war as a matter of women’s rights, "the problem of the burqa is not a religious problem," he said. "It is a problem of liberty and the dignity of women. It is a sign of servitude and degradation."

There is a strong suspicion that Mr. Sarkozy, who has supported religious freedom, is playing politics in a time of economic unhappiness and social anxiety. But he also seems to want to restrict more radical and puritanical forms of Islam from gaining further hold here.

The French press has been full of heated opinion pieces, charts about different Islamic veils, stories about public swimming pools and the burqini, an Islamic swimsuit that covers the body and the hair (but not the face). Women wearing the niqab, many of them French converts to Islam, have said that they have freely chosen to cover themselves after marriage. Others say solemnly that to stigmatize or ban the veil would only cause more women to wear it, out of protest.

Last year, Faiza Silmi, now 33, was denied French citizenship in part for wearing the niqab, bringing a legal judgment about personal dress into the home. In an interview with Le Monde, Ms. Silmi said that she chose to wear the niqab after her marriage, even if her own mother thought it was "a little too much."

"Don’t believe for a moment that I am submissive to my husband!" she said. "I’m the one who takes care of the documents and the money."

Passions have been so high that when domestic intelligence issued a report saying that only 367 women in France wore a full veil, it seemed to make no difference.

For many French Muslims, the entire discussion is an embarrassment and an incitement to racial and religious hatred.

M’hammed Henniche is the secretary for the private Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis. He is French first of all, he said, and he is appalled.

"There’s nothing but confusion," he said. "What they’re talking about is the niqab, but I think choosing to use burqa instead is not an accident. They chose a word that is associated with Afghanistan, and that spreads a negative, scary image.

"There are laws in France that force women to show their face, in certain situations, at the town hall, at the bank," Mr. Henniche added. "Women who wear niqab take it off when they must. But in the streets, everyone is free. They’re spinning this story in order to stigmatize a community."

Even existing laws are misunderstood, he said, with a woman refused entry to a bank because employees thought a head scarf was illegal. "It’s a dangerous slip, going from a ban in school to a ban in the streets," he said.

John R. Bowen, who wrote "Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space," has been asked to testify by the parliamentary commission.

"French political discourse is internally conflicted," said Mr. Bowen, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. There is confusion about different kinds of public space, he said — the street, and places that belong to the state but are not freely open to the public, like schools.

France took from Rousseau the principle that no intermediate group or affiliation should stand between the citizen and the state, which represents the general interest, Mr. Bowen said. But Rousseau also championed the right to form private associations, or clubs. It was not until 1901, however, that the state allowed some unions or associations, Mr. Bowen said, and not until 1981 that foreigners could form them.

Muslim groups then started religious tutoring, seen as promoting Islam, and clubs based on ethnicity or religion are viewed with great suspicion, Mr. Bowen said. "There is a sense that people who are publicly displaying their religious or ethnic characteristics are a slap in the face of French applied political theory."

Mr. Bowen does not think there will be a law banning the niqab. Nor does Yazid Sabeg, Mr. Sarkozy’s commissioner for diversity and equal opportunity, who said it would be unenforceable.

"Even if they ban the burqa, it will not stop there," Mr. Henniche, of the Muslim group, said. "There is a permanent demand for legislating against Muslims. This could go really bad, and I’m scared of it. I feel like they’re turning the screws on us."

Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Paris.