France: Reactions to proposed partial ban on burqa

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Sarkozy's veil climbdown: Has Nicolas Sarkozy lost face in his battle against the burqa? One might think so considering his latest compromise on the issue. While the French president firmly believes that these allegedly Islamic veils are "a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement" which are "not welcome" anywhere in the Fifth Republic, he now thinks the only workable ban would be on public transport or in civic buildings.

In a country which is meant to champion secularism and gender equality, it really is quite a climbdown. The vast majority of French people, including most Muslims, believe that face coverings should be banned completely. They're not only intimidating and divisive, but actually have very little to do with Islam, and far more to do with central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions. They certainly engender more than a sneaking suspicion that they've been imposed by men intent on keeping their spouses or daughters away from the common gaze.

Sarkozy clearly laid out the popular view with the words: "The full veil is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman's dignity." A ban would be an entirely democratic one which would not stigmatise anyone, least of all members of France's six millon-strong Muslim community, Sarkozy argued.

Despite this, Sarkozy left us in little doubt that all those who wear face coverings – whether burqa or niqab – are Muslims living in a country which increasingly expects everyone to "adapt" to the Gallic way. It was certainly no coincidence that the clampdown on religious symbols in state schools which began in 1994 centred on Muslim headscarves. Sixteen years on, the only reason Sarkozy has stopped short of a full burqa ban is because he thinks it would be thrown out by appeal courts under European human rights legislation.

Such legal challenges would be a huge embarrassment to Sarkozy, especially during his rightwing government's ill-conceived national identity debate which is allowing racist and Islamophobic views to masquerade as 21st-century patriotism. Even anti-terrorism judges have captured the increasingly hostile nature of the arguments by saying that a full ban on the veil would lead to an increase in Islamic extremism.

Under such circumstances the real issue raised by Sarkozy's burqa ban – and especially the watered down version – is not the freedom of the handful of few women who wear full veils (less than 2000 and most of them confined to isolated housing estates, according to all reliable estimates), but the very place of Islam in modern France. By targeting his tokenistic policies and soundbites at a harmless minority, Sarkozy and his cronies succeed in linking Islam with everything from sexism to national security threats. If these associations are genuine, then they should be dealt with in a manner which is honest and unambiguous. Anything less results in weak compromises engendering nothing but fear and suspicion, often without anybody really understanding why.

By Nabila Ramdani, Saturday 16 January 2010

WEARING BURQA WILL NOW BE A CRIME? Asks Asghar Ali Engineer: Now a draft bill is under consideration of French Parliament imposing a fine of Euro 700 on any woman wearing burqa covering her whole body in any public place and her husband twice as much if he forces hear to wear burqa. This is for the first time that women would be penalized for wearing burqa. Earlier France had banned Muslim girls wearing hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfere with its commitment to secularism and its secular culture.

In fact nothing happens without political ideology being behind it. This measure is being championed by rightwing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of people under the cover of secularism. However the socialists are opposed to any ban on burqa though they are also not in favour of women wearing burqa. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning burqa (which includes covering face).

The Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon announced that wearing burqa is not desirable but is not favourable to legal ban which would amount to an inconsistent ad hoc ban.  Mr. Hamon said on RTL Raido “We are totally opposed to  the burqa. The burqa is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic”, he said. “But an adhoc law would not have the anticipated effect”.

The stand taken by Socialists appears to be quite logical. One cannot stop women from wearing burqa through a legal ban. It is quite undemocratic to punish one for wearing certain type of dress. It is anti-democratic and anti-secular for a multi-cultural society. Let it be very clear that to cover entire body including the face is not necessarily an Islamic way.

The ulama hold different views on the subject. Majority of them hold that covering face and hands is not prescribed by Qur’an or Sunnah. Only very few theologians and jurists want women to be fully covered. To compel women to so cover their bodies and face is indeed against women’s rights and dignity. And a woman should be a free agent to decide for herself what to wear within decent limits and cultural ethos.

However, this freedom also includes right of women to cover their face, if thy so desire and if they think it is requirement of their religion. When I was lecturing in Bukhara University among a class of women students all of whom were wearing skirts and their heads were uncovered, two women came fully covered including their faces. All other women demanded that these two burqa clad women should be thrown out.

I said imagine burqa clad women were in majority and two women had come wearing skirt and uncovered head and majority of burqa clad women had demanded those two women being thrown out, what would you feel. I, therefore, argued that let us not get violent because someone dresses unlike us. We should dialogue with them and persuade them, if we can, not to wear such dress fully covering themselves.

There could be number of reasons why one prefers to wear certain kind of dress. May be there is coercion by parents or husband which is undesirable. Or may be one thinks it is religious requirement and one tries to assert ones right. Or may be one is trying to fight cultural alienation. Certain dresses also become identity markers. Many Muslims who migrate from Asia and Africa experience cultural shock when they see French or other European women wearing scanty dresses, even wearing bikinis. Thus they feel all the more compelled to wear their traditional dress.

Also, in France and several other European countries migrants are marginalized and have feeling of alienation which pushes them into practicing their own cultural norms. And then it is also to be remembered all Muslim women in France do not wear such dress covering themselves fully. In fact many Muslim women have integrated themselves into French society by taking to western dress.

Thus legal ban will only build up resistance among traditional Muslim women and they would try to defy the law resulting in social tensions. It would be far better to resort to persuasive ways to discourage traditional Muslim women not to wear all covering burqa. And persuasion alone will not work unless backed by other measures economic as well as social to fight alienation of religious and cultural minorities.

Thus one needs multi-pronged measures to contain this problem. Muslim Ulama and intellectuals living in France also have to adopt creative ways to reinterpret Islamic traditional sources to suit new conditions. It is quite necessary to revisit traditional sources rooted in medieval feudal culture.

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


Joan Smith: Nothing liberal about defending burkas (The Independent)

Here's the thing about the burka: it's absurd. There are many reasons why people choose to dress as they do but this garment is ugly, restricts communication and represents a dishonest ideology. If covering everything except the eyes protected women from rape and sexual harassment, Saudi Arabia would be a feminist paradise, but that isn't quite how I'd describe the kingdom.

The notion that young women in tight jeans are "asking for it" appeals to defence barristers in rape trials and some Muslim clerics – an Australian imam compared them to "uncovered meat" left out for cats – but it doesn't explain why elderly women are sexually assaulted in their own homes.

The leader of Ukip in the European Parliament, Nigel Farage, has just called for a ban on the burka (I assume he means the niqab as well, since that is more common in British towns and cities). In France, the demand for a ban came originally from a communist deputy, demonstrating that the burka causes unease across the political spectrum, and has received public support. But while I dislike the burka as much as anyone, I don't believe a ban is justified or even necessary, given that the arguments for wearing the face-veil are so feeble.

What worries me is that this isn't said more often, out of reluctance to cause offence or fear of appearing racist. The niqab and the burka are symbols of an ideology, not a fashion statement, and we shouldn't be afraid of making a robust ideological response to them.

Here is mine. One of the most fundamental human rights is equal access to public space. Islam doesn't demand that men cover their faces before they go out, but its more extreme advocates place special conditions on how women dress outside the home. It's a typical example of patriarchal practice, based on the notion that women should be under the control of their male relatives at all times, and it's incompatible with any notion of universal human rights. It limits women's contact with non-relatives and maintains barriers between people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds. (Of course it does. That's what it's for.)

In effect, a woman in a niqab is wearing a mask, signalling her deliberate separation from people unlike herself. It's hard to think of another form of dress which is so highly politicised – or so rejectionist of mainstream culture.

This is the point missed by liberal defenders of the niqab and the burka. I'm aghast when they say it's about personal choice, as though that removes the subject from the political arena; one of feminism's most influential slogans – "the personal is political" – exposed that as nonsense four decades ago.

No one is saying that women cover their faces for a single reason: a fairly small number believe their religion requires it, some come under family pressure, others adopt it for the political reasons I've outlined above. Whatever the motive, the symbolic meanings – separation, rejection, an acceptance of shame – remain the same. I don't want to ban the burka but I do reserve the right to say, as politely as possible, that wearing it in the 21st-century is preposterous.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Critics argue proposed move would be violation of basic rights (AP)

The man she married is French, her four children were born in France and she speaks French with only a trace of her native Arabic tongue. Faiza Silmi contends her clothes — a head-to-toe robe and filmy tissue covering her face — are the reason France has denied her citizenship in her adopted land.

The 32-year-old Moroccan may soon be facing an even fiercer blow. A top French lawmaker submitted a draft law this week that would ban such Islamic dress anywhere in public, a measure that would set a European precedent and trap thousands of women between their religious convictions and the law of the land.

"They say I'm too attached to my religion," Silmi told The Associated Press at an empty restaurant near her home southwest of Paris, her large eyes peering from a slit in her veil. "Lots of Christians live in Morocco and we don't make them wear scarves."

Unlike Muslim headscarves, full-body, face-covering robes are a rare sight in the streets of France, home to an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe. France's main Muslim leaders have declared that Islam does not require women to cover their faces with niqabs or burqas.

In a country whose national emblem is Marianne, a bare-chested woman, there is deepening concern over the all-encompassing garb, often black or brown and worn with gloves, attire typical in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Here, it is widely viewed as a gateway to radical Islam, an attack on gender equality and other French values, and a gnawing away at the nation's secular foundation.

'Not welcome'
President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the door to a possible ban in June, telling a parliament session in Versailles that such dress "is not welcome" in France. A parliamentary panel set to work in July on a six-month mission gathering information on the garments.

On Tuesday, the head of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party in parliament's lower house, Jean-Francois Cope, jumped the gun before the panel's report was finished, and filed draft legislation on a ban. "No one may, in spaces open to the public and on public streets, wear a garment or an accessory that has the effect of hiding the face," the draft text reads.

The document cites public security concerns, thus includes all face-covering clothes, in a bid to head off challenges from those who might claim such a law would violate constitutional rules on individual rights — a major concern along with how such a law would be enforced. It foresees fines for those who break the law.

The initiative, unlikely to go to debate before spring, would be the second time France targets Muslim dress. A 2004 law born in acrimony bans Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols in the classrooms of French public schools. Sarkozy's party dominates parliament and the president reiterated Wednesday his wish for a law on full veils, though it's too early to say whether it will pass.

Europe's growing Muslim population has bred tension across the continent. Wariness is pervasive since deadly attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 by Islamic radicals living in Europe. And some non-Muslims sense a threat by a foreign culture to their way of life. It took only four minarets on Switzerland's 200 mosques to push the Swiss to vote "no" to minarets in a November referendum.

However, France, which wants an Islam tailored to the West, would be the only western European country to target the all-enveloping robes and niqabs, the cloth hiding the lower face. "We're going to become the laughing stock of democracies" should France ban the clothing, said Raphael Liogier, a sociology professor who runs the Observatory of the Religious in Aix-en-Provence.

He is among critics who say a ban would be a violation of basic rights and "transgression of the fundamental principles of our republic."