Burqa ban riles French Muslim women

Burqa ban riles French Muslim women

17th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Some Muslim women dismiss politicians’ claims that a burqa ban will protect their rights. Instead, they simply want to be able to practise their religion the way they want to.

French leaders may be queuing up to promise to protect her rights, but Samira would rather they left her to wear her veil and to practise her vision of Islam in peace.

"I've nothing to apologise for and I respect everyone else. Democracy is more than just a theory for me," the 36-year-old told AFP as she shopped at a market in Venissieux on the southern outskirts of Lyon.

The area has a strong Muslim population, but in two hours in the Miguettes market Thursday only four women pass wearing the niqab, a black full face veil that leaves only Samira's eyes showing through a narrow slit.

Some women wear a headscarf that covers their hair and necks, leaving an oval for the face. Others are uncovered and wear Western-style clothes.

The French parliament on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the full-face Islamic veil as an affront to the nation's values, setting the stage for a law banning it.

The vote in the National Assembly put France on course to become the second European country after Belgium to declare the wearing of the burqa or the niqab illegal in public places.

To justify a ban condemned by Muslim leaders outside France as an attack on religious freedom, politicians insist they are fighting to protect the rights of women and French secular traditions.

Samira is unimpressed, and hopes those very French traditional freedoms, as enshrined in the constitution, will protect her from the ban.

"I'm confident. I know the constitution," she said, denouncing what she sees as the hypocrisy of the political class stirring a national debate that will only serve to "generate Islamophobia".

Vénissieux : Samira, 36, wearing a niqab, the islamic full veil, buy socks at a market of Venissieux near Lyon, eastern France, on 22 April 2010

Delicate debate even among Muslim women
It is a delicate debate, and even among the Muslim women of this working class central French town, there is no clear unanimity.

"Their black thing, that's the Taliban. It cheapens women," declared Nora Kassir, an unveiled passerby from nearby Sant-Fons, adding that while she rejected the niqab she had nothing against a headscarf.

Some French leaders warn the niqab -- never very popular among the mainly North African and Black African Muslims in France -- is spreading, promoted by hardline preachers trained in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Official estimates suggest 1,900 French women, among perhaps five or six million Muslims, wear the niqab. Anecdotally, however, its use is spreading.

"There are many more women in the niqab in Venissieux," said 15-year-old Amina, shopping with her grandmother in the black chador-style headscarf covering her head but not her face that she has worn since she was two.

Amina said she hopes to wear a niqab too one day, if it is not banned, and thinks that most women who wear it do so through religious choice rather than because they are forced to by their families or imam.

"I know that some of them are forced, but I don't know them," she added.

Lydia, an unveiled 16-year-old, said however that she thinks the girls who "choose" the niqab are forced into it. Nora cut short the debate, declaring that immigrant communities should adapt to the culture of their new home.

"When you live in a country, you adopt its customs. If you went wandering around in a G-string in Saudi Arabia, how do you think they'd take it?"

A woman wearing a "Niqab" veil participates in a protest on 6 February 2010 in Tours, central France, after a panel of French lawmakers recommended a ban on the face-covering veil in all schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices

Scholars call for government not to move quickly towards ban
While Muslim leaders in Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan condemned the imminent French ban, scholars in France have been more cautious.

The head of the Grand Mosque in Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, argued that the Koran does not order a veil -- a common but not unanimous view among Islamic scholars -- just that women be modestly dressed in loose clothes.

Nevertheless, he called for the government not to move too quickly towards a ban that might stigmatise the broader Muslim community and undermine freedom of religious expression.

There is support from both right and left in the French parliament for Sarkozy's law, but some lawmakers argue that it goes too far and might be unconstitutional.

What is certain is that there is a tough debate ahead, and in the meantime many in France's Muslim minority argue that Sarkozy has seized on an issue of minor importance and risks stirring communal tensions.

"The ban's not my problem, and Muslims will respect the law, but I think there are other things more important in France, like unemployment," said Mohammed, who works in the Al Kitiad bookshop in Paris.

While many Muslims agreed with him, others went further, claiming that the French are decadent and opposed to Islam in itself.

"In the Metro, there are posters of naked women and I have no right to say I'm shocked, while the French have a right to say that a veiled women shocks them," said salesman Charif Muldi. "This country has a problem with Islam."

AFP / Laure Brumont / Expatica

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