FRANCE: Burqa Ban Keeps Immigration Issue Alive

  • by A. D. McKenzie (paris)
  • Thursday, January 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Can one wear a burqa and still be French? Can a burqa-clad immigrant be integrated? The government’s answer appears to be 'no', as a French parliamentary report this week called for a partial ban on the burqa, saying that it constituted a 'challenge' to the French republic and that this was 'unacceptable'.

The report, which came after six months of official deliberation, recommends that the burqa, or full veil, be prohibited in schools, hospitals, government offices and public transportation. This would mean, for example, that a bus driver can refuse to accept a passenger dressed in a burqa.

'I think the committee has tried to come up with what they think is a solution that is more politically and legally viable, rather than a full-fledged ban, but we are still very concerned that the restrictions will seriously interfere with the rights of Muslim women in France - the right to manifest their religion and the right to personal autonomy,' said Judith Sunderland, senior researcher for Western Europe at Human Rights Watch.

'We certainly oppose any kind of blanket measure,' she told IPS in a telephone interview. 'But the piecemeal measures would also violate rights and be counter-productive because it won’t help women who may be forced to wear the veil, and it would violate the rights of those who choose freely to wear it’’.

'The measures will contribute to the stigmatisation of Islam and Muslims in general. It’s just a bad idea all around,' she added.

Other opponents of the measures have voiced different criticisms. The final report was boycotted by the opposition Socialist Party, for instance, to protest the government’s 'grand débat' on national identity, which was launched last November. The 'débat' is seen by some as catering to the right-wing, anti-immigrant segment of the population ahead of the elections.

But immigration minister Eric Besson stressed to journalists last week that 'France remains an open country', with a tradition of welcoming immigrants.

The debate on the burqa has been heated among politicians and the public since French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared, last June, that the garment had no place in France.

'The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory,' Sarkozy said then to a group of lawmakers in a speech at Versailles.

Polls have since indicated that 65 percent of the French population, including some Muslims, would like a law banning the burqa.

Paradoxically, nearly half of all French citizens say they rarely see anyone wearing a burqa, or the niqab (the variation used here that shows the eyes), according to a poll done by the company GN Research, and published in the French daily Le Parisien.

The interior ministry says an estimated 2,000 women (out of a French population of 65.4 million) wear the garment, mostly in the banlieues, or outskirts, of Paris. Those wearing the garment in the ritzier sections of the capital are usually wealthy Middle Eastern tourists.

But even though so few wear the garment here, the French still find the burqa offensive. The 32-member parliamentary commission that drew up the report claims that all of France is saying 'no' to the burqa because the garment is 'contrary to the values of the republic'.

'If the Burqa is essentially offensive to the majority in the host country's culture, and it is not of essential importance to the majority of French Muslims or Muslim immigrants in that culture, it should perhaps not be solicited as ‘essential’ and can thus be eliminated,' said France-based artist Linda Bernhardt, who has a background in sociology and social science.

'I think that it’s important that the Muslim and Arab community define what is important to them to share with the community in which they are going to integrate,' she told IPS. 'The burqa is not something that I’ve gathered to be essential from the point of view of moderate Muslims’’.

'I believe that each side defines what they can give to the other and there’s a blending. No one has a fixed identity. There are changes and things evolve. This builds humanity which is stronger,' she added.

But if the government is going to ban the burqa, Bernhardt said, then it should also make concessions to the country’s five million Muslims, as well as to other non-Christian communities, by having public holidays that are not only 'traditionally Catholic'.

The parliamentary report in fact suggests steps to reach out to the Muslim community, including establishing a 'national school of Islamic studies', and creating new national holidays that would celebrate religious festivals such as Islam’s Eid and Judaism’s Yom Kippur.

These and other suggestions in the report will only be debated after the March elections, and no one seems quite sure how the government will move forward once the results are known.

Some Muslims say that if the parliamentary recommendations lead to a ban, this may push women to choose to wear the burqa out of defiance, or just to assert their rights in a country that is proud of its ideals of liberty and equality for all.

Lawyers also say that a ban would be difficult to enforce and that the issue may end up before the European Court of Human Rights.

'It’s a forced integration measure that’s bound to fail,' said Sunderland of Human Rights Watch. 'It’s just the wrong approach. I can’t see how a law restricting the wearing of the niqab would help those women who are forced to wear it. It may make them become more secluded and also excluded from French society’’.

'There are all sorts of policy measures that should be adopted to reach out to women whose rights are violated on a daily basis by their families and the communities where they live,' Sunderland told IPS. 'We don’t think this kind of legislative measure will help women who wear the niqab. It will just make their lives impossible. How are they going to pick up their kids by bus, or talk to teachers who may be male, for instance?'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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