FaithWorld

Sarkozy says Muslims should not feel singled out by full veil ban

burqa

A veiled woman in Nantes, western France, on April 26, 2010/Stephane Mahe

France attempted the arguably impossible on Wednesday by presenting a bill to ban Muslim face veils and asking Muslims not to feel it was singling them out in the process.

President Nicolas Sarkozy made a brave effort of it at the cabinet meeting that approved the government’s draft “burqa ban” that we reported on here.  Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who Sarkozy’s UMP party always seems to call on when things get tough, did her best in an interview (here in French) that got the part about Mecca wrong. There will be more of this in the months ahead as the bill moves through the National Assembly and Senate.

It’s hard not to single out Muslims when they’re the only ones who wear full face veils. The bill avoids mentioning them as such, saying only that the ban applies to “concealment of the face in public. But nobody’s fooled, a fact Sarkozy acknowledged in his comments to the cabinet: “This is a decision one doesn’t take lightly. It’s a serious decision because nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected. Laïcité means respect for all beliefs, for all religions. alliot-marie

“But we are an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women’s dignity, and of life together. It’s the fruit of centuries of efforts. The full veil that fully conceals the face violates these values that are so fundamental for us, so essential to the republican contract. Dignity cannot be divided and in the public sphere, where we meet each other, where we are with others, citizenship should be lived with uncovered faces. So  ultimately there can be no other solution than a ban in all public places.”

To critics who say the ban would victimise women who want to wear the veil, Alliot-Marie – seen at left leaving the cabinet meeting (photo: Jacky Naegelen) said: “As we see it, these women are victims. It would be ideal if these sanctions didn’t have to be imposed on them.”

French driver fined for wearing niqab, most French want a ban

niqab anne 2

(Anne, an assumed name, a 31-year old French woman who has been fined for wearing a niqab while driving, at a news conference in Nantes, April 23, 2010/Stephane Mahe)

A 31-year-old French woman has been fined for wearing a niqab while driving, a further sign of France’s bid to clamp down on the face-covering Islamic veil which President Nicolas Sarkozy says demeans women. The unnamed woman told LCI television that police stopped her last month while she was driving in Nantes, near the French Atlantic coast.

She was wearing a black niqab, that covers the face but leaves the eyes exposed. Police handed her a 22-euro ($29) fine, saying her clothing posed a “safety risk” to her driving. “My eyes were not covered. I can see just like you and my field of vision was not obstructed,” said the woman, who did not give her name. She said she would appeal against the decision.

France moves towards banning Muslim veil in public

sarkozy

President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers speech on security issues in Bobigny, near Paris, April 20, 2010/Benoit Tessier

France is moving toward a ban on wearing face-covering Islamic veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill next month amid heated debate over women’s rights and religious freedom.  Most French voters back a ban, polls have shown, but legal experts have warned that it could violate the constitution.

President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out in favor for a complete ban on Wednesday, and the relevant bill will be presented to the cabinet in May, government spokesman Luc Chatel said on Wednesday. Sarkozy believed that the full veil, commonly referred to as the burqa in France, “hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society,” he told reporters.

France’s “burqa ban” and the “Sarkozy shuffle” to shape it

national assembly

The French National Assembly in Paris, 13 March 2000/Frédéric de La Mure

Efforts by French politicians to “ban the burqa” hit the wall of constitutional reality today when the Council of State, France’s top administrative court, said there was no legal way Paris could completely outlaw full Islamic veils in public. The issue has been at the centre of complex and sometimes heated debate in France in recent months, but it wasn’t clear until now how far French and European law would allow the state to go. We still don’t know exactly what the law will look like, but the back story to today’s report is a tale in itself.

Sarkozy launched the veil debate last year in a replay of an earlier campaign strategy to capture votes from the anti-foreigner National Front by veering to the right. Regional elections were coming up this March and his right-wing UMP party hoped to win control of more than the 2 regions it governed out of the 22 regions in metropolitan France.   In the end, they lost one of them in an embarrassing election wipeout that saw a strong showing for the National Front. So, shortly after that slap in the face, Sarkozy toughened up his stand a bit more. Among the measures he promised was a law banning the full Islamic facial veil. sarkozy 1

President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace in Paris, 24 March 2010/Benoit Tessier

French MPs seek resolution denouncing Muslim veil, with ban to follow

burqa

Women in niqabs in Marseille, 24 Dec 2009/Jean-Paul Pelissier

France’s parliament is likely to call in a resolution for a ban on Muslim face veils in public but take longer to turn that policy into law, deputies said on Thursday. A parliamentary commission studying the sensitive issue, which has been discussed alongside a wider public debate about French national identity launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, is due to publish its recommendations next Tuesday.

Polls say most voters want a legal ban on full-length face veils, known here by the Afghan term burqa although the few worn in France are Middle Eastern niqabs showing the eyes. Critics say a law would stigmatise Muslims and be unenforceable.

Jean-Francois Copé, parliamentary floor leader for Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, told France Inter radio said the plan was for “a resolution to explain and then a law to decide.” André Gérin, head of the commission, agreed that deputies needed more time to draft a law, but told the daily Le Figaro: “The ban on the full facial veil will be absolute.”

Sarkozy explains French laïcité to visiting Catholic bishops

bishops-elyseeFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy took time out from a busy schedule on Friday to welcome 18 Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across Europe into the Elysée Palace for a short talk about laïcité. The prelates were in Paris for an annual session of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE), a Swiss-based body that brings together all those bishops’ conferences. Among the topics at the three-day conference are relations between church and state in Europe, so it was natural that they’d take the opportunity to learn more about France’s trademark secular system. (Photo: Zagreb Archbishop Josip Bozanic (L), Esztergom-Budapest Cardinal Péter Erdö (C) and Bordeaux Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard arrive to meet President Sarkozy, 2 Oct 2009/Charles Platiau)

Cardinal Péter Erdö of Esztergom-Budapest, current CCEE president, came out full of praise for the president’s presentation. It was “maqnifique”, he told waiting journalists in French. “We’re very pleased to hear the president’s point of view”, which he described as “a constructive way of interpreting laïcité”. Erdö recalled that France’s legal separation of church and state, imposed forcibly in 1905, had led to “great conflicts” in the past. “But today, I think it is one form of constructive collaboration and mutual respect” in Europe. He added that the bishops gave Sarkozy a copy of Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in veritate” (Charity in Truth) signed by the pontiff himself.

Outside of France, laïcité is sometimes seen as a hostile system the Catholic Church must be instinctively allergic to. It can give rise to some hostility, especially from officials who are actually what has to be called laïcité fundamentalists. And it can complicate life not only for the Catholic Church but all religious groups there. But in fact, most religious groups here have learned to live with the system and defend it to visiting foreigners who expect to hear them groaning about it.

France may ban burqas, but chic abayas for export are fine

three-burqasWhen French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last month that the burqa was not welcome in France, he unleashed a global debate on Islam and veils that drew in everyone from bloggers and full-time pundits to Al Qaeda’s North African wing. FaithWorld has dealt with it when Sarkozy spoke, in the aftermath of that speech, with a view from Afghanistan and a televised debate with a National Assembly deputy backing the ban. (Photo: Kabul women in burqas, 20 Nov 2001/Yannis Behrakis)

Last week, a somewhat unlikely group of commentators joined the debate — fashion designers at the haute couture shows in Paris. The niqab and the burqa are, after all, garments, so maybe it should not be surprising that the high priests of fashion have spent some thought on the issue.

In fact, many top French designers make customised abayas (long, baggy gowns some Arab women usually worn with a veil) and other luxury versions of traditional outfits for their Middle Eastern clients.

Debating a burqa ban with a French MP — in English

f24-bothFrance 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.

Here’s the video on the France 24 website. It’s about 20 minutes long. Myard presents the French case for banning burqas and niqabs very clearly. If you’ve read about this debate and can’t understand it, he is worth hearing to get a good feel for how many French people state the case for a ban.

Myard puts the debate squarely in the context of laïcité, the quintessentially French way of separating church and state. That separation is such an important principle in Western countries that even the Vatican — history’s big loser in this debate — now supports it. However, this principle is interpreted in different ways in different countries.

Burqa losing favour as Afghan women opt for chador

burqa-black (Photo:A burqa-clad woman in Kabul’s old bazaar, 4 March 2009/Ahmad Masood)

Here’s some news for Nicolas Sarkozy. While the French president has begun a battle against the burqa in France, the famous blue garment that covers women from head to toe is losing favour back in its stronghold Afghanistan. In Herat, burqa seller Nehmatullah Yusefy says sales have dropped 50 percent since the Talibanchador1 were toppled in 2001 and he says he will soon need to start stocking other styles of Islamic dress to make up for lost profits. (Photo right: Baghdad woman in chador, 12 Nov 2008/Mahmoud Raouf)

“I think, God willing, the sales of burqas will decrease, then I will sell chador namaz and even maybe mantau chalvar,” Yusefy said, standing behind the counter of his small outlet on a strip of burqa shops in the western city’s main market.

Read my feature here.

chalwar1The chador namaz is a long, billowing dress in black or sombre-patterned fabric which is widely worn in Iran. It exposes the woman’s face but covers the rest of her head and body until her ankles.

Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

burqa-eiffelThe French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils. (Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.