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Sun 24 Jan 2010 12:27 PM

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Women under wraps don’t deserve French ire

Why Sarkozy's burqa ban is just political fodder ahead of elections.

To listen to French politicians now making the round of TV talk shows, there is no issue more urgent than the burqa, the head-to-toe Muslim garment worn by very few women in France.

What’s spooky about the debate over the burqa, or the niqab as some call it, is that there is hardly any disagreement.

Everybody is against a full-length veil that hides women’s faces because it offends the “values of the republic.”

That’s what makes the movement headed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling center-right party to ban the burqa so off the mark and pointless. It has less to do with elastic notions of republican values, and more to do with reaching for political fodder before regional elections in March.

Republican values are to the French what the flag is to the Americans. They are invoked in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of people. No one is a more ferocious defender of “republican values” than the leaders of the far-right National Front party, champions of French xenophobia.

The idea behind the burqa ban is to remove from public sight an offending symbol of a deeper problem. That problem, depending on who is talking, is women’s rights, or the spread of a dangerous strand of Islamic fundamentalism, or both.

It’s hard to see how Muslim women or moderate followers of Islam will benefit from a law that obliges French police to chase down burqa-clad females and fine them 750 euros ($1,087).

It’s very likely that veiled women will simply stay at home, more isolated than before.

The burqa-niqab is indeed offensive on any number of counts. It is scary-looking; it hides a person’s identity and it is appalling to think that some women are forced -- either by their male partners, or their religious leaders, or both -- to walk around in their own individual cloth prison.

If the goal is to stop the spread of medieval notions of the role of women, then challenge those who preach it. If they are breaking the law with their hate-filled rhetoric, then arrest them, or expel them. As for women’s rights, there are other ways to protect wives or daughters from the tyranny of their husbands and fathers.

There’s another little problem, and that is enforcement.How would French police go about fining Saudi princesses who come to Paris to shop?

Last year, France’s intelligence service said 367 women wore the burqa. Later in the year, the Ministry of the Interior put the figure at 1,900, out of France’s estimated 5 million Muslim population.

Yet hard as it may be to believe, there are women who choose to dress like this: A 22-year-old law student named Dalila appeared recently in a TV debate during which she was able to face down -- through the slits in her niqab -- one of the ban’s most vigorous defenders.

Brought up by a non-Muslim mother, who sent Dalila and her sister to a Catholic school, the two decided as teenagers to obey what they believed were the laws of their father’s religion and don the niqab. Dalila said she would readily drop it when asked by civil authorities -- police, customs officers, exam takers or teachers.

“My freedom is to wear the veil,” she said.

Proponents of the law insist it’s not a matter of religion.They say it’s about the dignity of women, about public security, about identity, about the importance of facial expressions for communication -- above all, about the values of the republic.

“The burqa is not welcome on the territory of the republic,” was Sarkozy’s battle cry in June. “We shouldn’t be afraid of our values, we shouldn’t be afraid to defend them.”

This is where the French model of integration departs from the US or the UK approaches, which the French dismiss contemptuously as ’’communautarisme.’’ That word, really a slur, means the fostering of separate communities where minorities set themselves apart, clinging to their old language and culture.

The French idea, by contrast, expects immigrants to adapt to French ways, trusting in the assimilating power of “republican values,” which include a rejection of intrusive religious symbols.

To non-French ears, this can sound like an attack on personal or religious freedom. A 2004 law that banned head scarves, yarmulkes and heavy crosses in schools has been widely criticized. President Barack Obama in his speech last June to the Islamic world in Cairo obviously had France in mind when he called on Western countries not to dictate “what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.”

It’s hard to imagine lawmakers in the US, for instance, coming up with a law to ban the burqa. What would be the point?

Most countries have laws or ordinances banning outright nudity, but few enforce dress codes, or dictate hemlines. Those that do -- Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example -- are hardly models for France’s secular democracy.

This isn’t the first time European lawmakers have targeted the burqa. Such a ban was enacted in the Belgian city of Maaseik. The Netherlands also flirted with a burqa ban in 2006, but stepped back in 2008 on the grounds that it would violate the country’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

No matter how much advocates of a ban try to say it has nothing to do with religion, the debate always seems to come back to Islam. At least that’s the way some of France’s mainstream Muslim leaders see it.

Like others, they oppose the wearing of the burqa, which they insist isn’t a religious obligation. Like others, they see it as a sign of the influence of a radical form of Islam.

However, they strongly object to a law that they say would stigmatise not only the few women who wear it, but Muslims as a whole. That, they argue, would only serve to further inflame Islamic radicals.

There are better ways to fight back against unwanted religious extremists. Just last week, France expelled back to Egypt a radical imam who had been preaching violent jihad from a mosque outside Paris.

“The republic respects religious freedom,” said Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, “but preachers of hate, who have nothing to do with freedom of religion, have no place on our territory.”

Now that’s a ban that makes sense.

Celestine Bohlen is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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Yaseer Alam 10 years ago

We don't need any French ire... we are born Muslims and we are very thankful to Allah... Allah.. Allah.. the most beneficent, the most merciful, the forgiver... the creator..... We are proud to be Muslims... Alhumdulillah... Muslims till we die...

saudiboy 10 years ago

Speaking as a Saudi I woudl have to say, irrespective of religion and what you choose to believe in your own home and personally, you should respect the culture and traditions of the place that you live. Western countries and democracies provide social support, welfare and a quality of life that many immigrants wouldnt even dream of. Asking them to comply with the culture and traditions of the massive majority of the population is no more ridiculous than our countries asking western tourists and residents to dress conservatively and 'respect' our culture. why are we always the hypocrites every single time? our religion is right and everyone else is going to hell. we have all heard this broken record for too long, time to get over it and realise we are all human beings!