ROUND UP. The lower house of the French Parliament passed a ban on the so-called “full-face veil” (sometimes presented as “burqa”, “burqu” or “niqab” in the press ; please not that we will mainly use the word “burqu” in the text) last Tuesday. Diverse voices in France and the Muslim world had opposed or supported the decision even if many of them do not believe that face cover is a religious duty… And because EMAJ magazine strongly believes that one voice is not enough, here are extracts from 14 opinions published in 3 languages about this controversial decision.
What happened? Click here
How it all began?
At the beginning of the year French Prime Minister François Fillon asked the French State Council to give a report on a possible ban of the “full-face veil” in France. In France, the Constitution imposed that the State Council is consulted on law proposals before their adoption by the Council of Ministers. However the government is not bound to the opinion of the State Council.
At the end of March the State Council presented its report in which it did not express in favor of a ban. The law proposal was nevertheless adopted by the Council of Ministers on May 19th. It foresees a fine of 150 euro and the obligation to follow a ‘traineeship on citizenship’ for women wearing the ‘full-face veil’ in public (which means public administrations and the streets). It also foresees a fine of 150.000 euro and a prison sentence of up to one year for someone forcing a woman to wear the ‘full-face veil’.
The law proposal was approved on Tuesday (July 13th) at the National Assembly with 335 vote to 1. The proposal will now be discussed at the Senate in September.
Traditionally considered as a laic state, France already outlawed the veil at schools in 2004. If the veil ban at schools did not encounter a strong opposition, the ban of the full-face veil in public sphere has sometimes being criticized as a step towards more exclusion for women or as a masquerade carried out by the government for instance to avoid other difficult issues.
A note of the French Ministry of the Interior published last year in July reported that 367 women were wearing the full-face veil in France. It is however quite difficult to get an exact figure and information also circulated in the press, speaking of up to 2000 women.
In order to try and reflect the complexity of the issue, we opted here firstly for some arguments brought up by personalities in the French press to oppose to a ban or put it into question (even though some authors still criticize the full-face veil itself).
Stigmatization of women
In the daily newspaper Le Monde, Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, criticized the ban, which according to him, would lead to a stronger exclusion of women concerned: “Even though an islamophobic feeling may sometimes be underlying, one of the main arguments is that it has to do with women’s interest. One considers indeed that the ban of the veil would help them to get rid of it. This hypothesis is not confirmed by any fact, nor study. The adoption of ban laws risks rather to (…) stigmatize the few women concerned and exclude them even more from the society.”
Sarkozy wants to divide French people
The leftist daily newspaper L’Humanité (which used to be the press organ of the French communist party) criticized the ban, which he sees as a way for the president Nicolas Sarkozy to split the country and raise tensions between communities: “According to the principle that, when one speaks of this, one does not speak about something else, here is the aim: Divide the French and stir up the most radical community withdrawal, despite of the fears raised by the State Council.”
Against the full-face veil but against misleading debate
In the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Dominique Sopo, President of the French organization SOS Racisme, considers the burqu and niqab as “signs of oppression aiming at (…) interiorizing a patriarchal order through women, which is not compatible with women’s dignity”. However he strongly disapproves the current debate on the niqab in France: “Since a few months the French society seems to deepen in a unhealthy climate. Importation from Switzerland of the debate on minarets, debate on national identity, liberation of racist speech. (…) The debate concerning the burqu law draws the last avatar of this disgusting sequence because I pretend that it comes mainly not from a feminist concern but an untold will to stigmatize a part of the population through the use of the most noble means”.
A threat to the Republican regime?
In the daily newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Louis Halpérin, Professor of Law, disagrees with the threat evoked concerning the integral veil: “If the integral veil does not threaten the material public order, is it a threat to the ‘non material’ public order, which is supposed to result from the Republican values of our society? I do not really see how wearing the integral veil could be a threat to the Republican regime”.
In a video interview given to the press agency Agence France Presse (AFP) on April 22nd the journalist and author Caroline Fourest, who published various essays on Islamism, claimed that such a law is not taken necessarily in favor for the rights of women : “Of course women rights are at the origin of the emotion one feels when coming across a woman wearing the full-face veil on the street. But we cannot start banning everything in the name of women rights (…) The government should better recreate a ministry for women rights, which he suppressed before. Through such a step, it would show its determination“.
But the issue was and is not only discussed in France. Belgium for instance faces the issue. And looking at the way France deals with the matter has been discussed in the United States and in the Arab press.
In Belgium, where a ban in public places has been approved by the deputies on April 29nd, Elise Bouvier, member of the Belgian private school Institut de la Providence, pleads for efforts done by both the “Belgian society” and the Muslims in the daily newspaper Le Soir: “I have a lukewarm opinion, divided between the idea to let Muslim young women chose to wear the veil, and the idea that they should adapt a minimum to our habits. Could they not wear the most simple veil, the hijab – which is already showing their faith and respecting their dogma- but make sure they take part to all [school] courses? Concessions have to come from both sides, it is high time to become aware of this.”
In the Swiss leftist daily newspaper Le Matin, the editorialist Rachad Armanios critisized that Islam and Muslims are often considered only as a problem in Switzerland, where no law proposal has been submitted until now: “The future will tell whether Switzerland will follow France and Belgium in their bad prohibitionist reflex. Because the freedom of expression can apply to all forms of expression that shock or worry. The temptation would be to legislate ‘in a preventive way’ on a phenomenon that would necessarily develop. Necessarily? (…) The ‘advertising hype’ has made its proofs. For several years Islam has been only considered as a problem“.
Mohamed Abo ElHadid, head of board members of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Gomhouria republished in his weekly column space an article published in American newspaper Christian Science Monitor after presenting it with few lines describing it by “objective and neutral”.
Christian Science Monitor’s article finds the French decision harsh and contradicts with the 18th article in the universal declaration of Human rights by United Nations.
The article is supported by an opinion from a spokeswoman of the organization Human Rights Watch, who finds that the only challenge facing European authorities regarding the niqab or the burqu is a security one and not social at all. The spokeswoman suggested that in airports and in governmental centers issuing identity cards, Muslim women can reveal their faces in closed rooms.
The article also suggested also that dealing with only 2000 Muslim woman who wears the burqu is much easier than the symbolic negative effect of the ban decision on the whole Muslim population in general.
North African Voices
Reuters news agency published a feature showing how Europe’s closest neighbors in North Africa – here Algerians and Moroccans – are passionate about the debate regarding the burqu.
People in North Africa are split between those who see the proposed ban – a version of which has already been approved by Belgium’s lower house of parliament – as an attack on Islam, and those who applaud Europe for defending secular values.
Some voices see that the right wing in France will benefit from the ban in the next elections while other voices see it as a “war against Muslims”.
Serious concerns in New York
University of Columbia in New York City hosted a discussion between Christopher Caldwell, author of the essay ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West’, and Professor Patrick Weil from Paris University with other speakers, a meeting attended by EMAJ magazine.
Both main speakers expressed their negative concerns regarding the ban decision supported with about 100 people who attended the discussion and were mainly Americans.
Caldwell said that Americans have never had a problem with the burqu as long as it is a personal decision. He further said that according to the American values and Constitution, wearing the burku can be perceived as an act of freedom of expression, the same way as it is considered as a freedom of religious exercise.
The American author claimed that the ban decision was taken in France because authorities think that men force their wives to wear the burqu, which according to him cannot be true in all cases as some women decided to wear the burqu without pressure. Caldwell suggested that the burqu issue could be treated as an act of domestic violence by giving women the right to be protected from their husbands when they forced them to wear it.
Egyptian writer Fahmy Howeidi, who is well-known for his opposition to the Egyptian regime, wrote in the Qatarian newspaper Al-sharq an article under the sarcastic title “Lessons in acceptance of the other and plurality”.
Howeidi criticized the burqu ban in France and considers it one among many steps taken against Arabs and Muslims who live in Europe and the United States in general. He described the decision as a declaration of war by European capitals like Paris and Brussels against the burqu. He further drew a parallel with the growing anti-Islamic movement in the Netherlands, which is lead by Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV).
“The French Republic, which tolerates prostitution in some of its streets at night, was shocked that some women want to wear the burqu in daytime. France considered protecting prostitutes as protecting freedom while wearing burqu is considered as violation of freedom”, added Howeidi.
On the other hand some voices in the Arab world are not enthusiastic to defend the right of women to wear the burqu. Iraqi writer Mohamed Al-Daamei wrote in the wide spread Emirati newspaper Al-Itiihad about the cultural shock of Arabs when they travel to Europe for the first time, and compared the situation with the shock of Europeans when they see a woman wearing the burqu for the first time in their lives: “Meeting a woman who wears the burqu is shocking for an average French person who is used to deal with women who enjoy freedom equally to men and can engage with men in all sorts of political and cultural debates”. He further added: “Seeing a couple kissing (…) in a public street in Europe can be shocking for Arabs too”.
The Iraqi writer blamed the double discourse of some Arab satellite channels, which according to him promote the cause of the burqu in France while they compete to hire the most beautiful female newscasters who do not wear even the hijab.
Don’t curse Europe!
The Egyptian journalist Mohamed Baraka wrote an opinion piece in the Egyptian newspaper Youm 7 under the headline “Don’t curse Europe for banning the burqu!”. Baraka supports the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab in public places in France even at school. In his opinion this is a religious practice that should be respected. But he then explained that according to the Quran and Islamic historians, the burqu did not exist even in the early days of Islam or under the reign of the prophet Mohamed.
“If the burqu issue can be discussed in Islamic countries, how come we blame the French for banning it?”, Baraka said.
Do you have another voice to add? Please contribute to our diversity and send us more links to be published in the comments section alongside the original text.