After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs
French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory.“ Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”
“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.
The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim faith (CFCM), said he was shocked by the proposal and asked why politicians wanted to focus on what he called a marginal phenomenon when they had bigger economic problems to deal with. “Bringing up the subject in this way, through the creation of a parliamentary commission, amounts to a stigmatisation of Islam and the Muslims of France,” he said.
No estimates exist for the total number of women wearing the all-encompassing garments in France and whether their number has been on the rise. Gerin said the commission would try to establish these facts. There are reasons to question just how widespread the practice really is. In previous public debates in France about Muslim headscarves or Muslim demands for hospitals to respect Islamic traditions (no men doctors to examine women, etc), some politicians and media seemed to assume the word “anecdote” was the singular of “data” and present a few stories as proof of a worrying trend.
Reactions have been mixed within Sarkozy’s government. State secretary for urban affairs Fadela Amara, one of three cabinet members of Muslim background, has advocated a law against burqas and niqabs while Immigration Minister Eric Besson says France should oppose this clothing “but it has to do it by education, by teaching, by dialogue. A law would be ineffective and would create tensions we don’t need right now.”
Sociologist Jean Bauberot, one of the leading specialists on France’s system of laïcité, or separation of church and state, told Libération this debate was similar to the headscarf controversy of 2003-2004 in that both showed a French tendency to think the state can know what’s best for its citizens. But there was an important difference in that facial veils could pose “practical problems for recognising the identity of the person standing in front of you.” We’ve discussed a similar argument in Canada on this blog.
“Of course, one may regret that women wear a burqa, but one cannot liberate people despite themselves,” he remarked.
Do you think there’s a difference between women covering their hair and covering their faces? Are both religious traditions that western countries should respect? Or do the practical problem Bauberot mentions mean a country could say yes to hijabs but no to niqabs?