Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “My freedom-sack is my identity…”
A group of 58 French MPs are asking for a parliamentary panel to look at ways to curb the wearing of the burka or niqab, which they describe as a “prison” and “degrading” for women and contrary to French secular principles.
The lawmaker spearheading the drive, Communist Andre Gerin, is mayor of the southern city of Venissieux, home to a large north African immigrant community, where he says the sight of fully-covered women has become commonplace.
“Our politicians need to stop acting so blind,” Gerin told AFP, describing the burka as evidence of a new “green fascism” led by Islamic fundamentalists.
Housing minister Fadela Amara, a Muslim-born women’s rights campaigner, waded into the fray saying “we must do everything to stop burkas from spreading, in the name of democracy, of the republic, of respect for women.
“The worrying thing is that we are seeing more and more of them,” she said, describing the burka as “a kind of tomb for women.”
But Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the official French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), insisted full-body veils remain a rare exception among France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest.
“To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatising Islam and the Muslims of France,” he charged.
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“We are shocked by the idea parliament should be put to work on such a marginal issue,” he said, saying lawmakers would do better to focus on the hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost in the economic crisis.
There are no figures on the number of women who wear a full-body Islamic covering in France — and whether it is on the rise — and lawmakers say that is one of the aims of the inquiry.
Gerin’s measure is backed by several dozen deputies from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and is expected to come up for a vote in the National Assembly.
France passed a controversial law in 2004 forbidding pupils from wearing veils and other religious symbols in state schools as part of the government’s drive to defend secularism.
The new row comes weeks after US President Barack Obama made an apparent dig at France’s headscarf ban in a speech aimed at healing rifts with the Islamic world.
Sarkozy later said he agreed with Obama that Muslim women in the West should be free to wear the headscarf, prompting an outcry from French feminists.
Gerin charged that “under President Sarkozy we are taking worrying steps backwards on secularism.”
Immigration Minister Eric Besson warned Thursday against reigniting a row on the headscarf issue, saying “France has managed to strike a balance, and it would be dangerous to call that into question.”
Paris Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur said he supports the proposal for a panel of deputies to look at the wearing of the burka “on the condition that they listen to what the experts on Islam have to say.”
Boubakeur said the burka marked “a return towards Islam’s past, in line with the preaching and vision of fundamentalists.”
But he also said many women chose to wear a full-body covering as a way of asserting their Muslim identity, faced with a mainstream society they feel to be hostile towards any kind of Islamic headscarf.
If the lower house agrees to set up the commission, it would draft a report to be released no later than November 30, said Gerin.
Will France Impose a Ban on the Burqa?
Secularism is the religion of contemporary France. And the enforcers of that faith have a new target. “Today … we are confronted by certain Muslim women wearing the burqa, which covers and fully envelops the body and the head like a moving prison,” said Andre Gerin, a Communist Party legislator who joined 57 others on Wednesday in signing a motion for a parliamentary committee to study possible legislation to ban the wearing of the traditional costume in public. Despite the fervor of Gerin and his allies, however, the burqa remains sufficiently rare in France that even the legislators railing against it are unable to say how many Muslim women in the country actually wear one. All Gerin would say was, “There are more and more of them, not only in big cities, but in rural settings as well … We have to break the silence of this country’s political leaders on the matter.”
Silence is hardly the word to characterize the matter of France and professions of religious piety. Last year the country’s highest administrative court denied the naturalization request of an otherwise irreproachable Moroccan woman on the grounds that her wearing a burqa was incompatible with French secularist statutes. On Tuesday, French Scientologists raised complaints of religious intolerance when state prosecutors wrapped up their arguments against the church on charges of organized swindling by requesting that the organization be disbanded and barred in France.Â (Read an argument against the veil by Azadeh Moaveni.)
The champions of French secularism note that the Scientology trial is based on fraud accusations, not religious practice. Meanwhile, the burqa offensive is aimed at protecting the rights of women forced to efface themselves by covering their bodies entirely. “The rights of women isn’t an issue of a few centimeters of cloth, but the burqa is the symbol of the oppression women suffer, so this debate should be encouraged,” says Siham Habchi, president of the Neither Whores Nor Submissive women’s movement, referring to the parliamentary initiative.Â (Check out a story about Europe’s “veil wars.”)
But what about the rights of Muslim women who honestly feel faith-bound to voluntarily don a burka? Or those prohibited by law from attending public school with the headscarves they wear everywhere else? Why is no one ranting about nuns’ habits being “degrading” (as Gerin called the burqa), just as no one lashed out at creeping extremism when thenâ€“First Lady Bernadette Chirac covered her head during Vatican visits?
Probably because Catholicism has deep roots in French history and culture and is not viewed as a foreign faith the way Islam is, which, with about 6 million practitioners, is the second largest religion in France. Its practitioners are also growing at a faster rate than Catholics. Indeed, the expanding size of Islam and fears about spreading extremism seem to have emboldened pundits and policy-makers to wade in and legislate aspects of Muslim observance and life in ways that they would be wary of doing with Catholics, Protestants or Jews.
At this point, no Muslim defenders of the rare French burqa have emerged. Indeed, Dounia Bouzar, a specialist on Muslim affairs, notes that while she and many fellow Muslims opposed the headscarf ban as meddling in private matters of choice, she is relieved at action taken on the burqa. “Imposition of this garment on women is one manner Salafists get individuals to renounce their individuality and submit to the extremist cult thinking that masquerades as Islam â€” but which is an abomination of it,” Bouzar says. “That Salafist influence and activity is spreading, and if it takes political action to prevent their cult from leading Muslims astray of Islam, so be it.”
France isn’t the first nation to consider a burqa ban. In 2006, Dutch officials caused a storm of protest from its Muslim populace by proposing a burqa interdiction. A law imposing a ban may soon be passed. France is not that far yet. The parliamentary motion to form an investigating committee must be approved before that body can be formed. If it is, it must study the burqa and reasons why those women who wear it do so, and consider recommendations whether to ban it. Drafting and voting legislation to that end would take months. Before then, public debate would rage on whether the move is merited â€” or another example of intolerance toward Islam. “Tolerance of the burqa requires a colonial view of Islam as so backwards that forcing a woman to erase herself that way seems natural,” Bouzar argues. “The burqa debate isn’t secularity vs. Islam, but manipulation and oppression vs. dignity.”