Multimedia producer Ben Piven lived in Paris in 2003. He explains the tension surrounding the French government’s attempts to restrict Islamic dress.
Six years ago, I was looking for an apartment in the French capital. Searching for the 5-A buzzer, an American friend and I came across an old French man who thought we were trespassing.
“Vous allez faire un kamikaze?” he shouted, wondering whether we were about to blow up his building.
“Avez-vous un tapis de priere?” he asked in a southern French accent, assuming that we were Moroccans who carry prayer rugs.
We responded that we were just American students, despite our relatively swarthy complexions, and then he proceeded with an extremist anti-Arab rant.
This was my first exposure to virulent French racism and cultural insensitivity. His tirade echoed the xenophobia of the far-right Front National party, which had received 17 percent of the vote in France’s 2002 presidential election.
Today, France is still wracked by intolerance and Islamophobia, despite a long tradition of democracy and dissent. As France struggles to integrate second-generation North Africans who are largely clustered in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities, the Islamic dress controversy continues to rage.
In July, a report by French newspaper Le Monde revealed that just 367 women wear the full Islamic veil in France. The figure makes French President Nicholas Sarkozy seem heavy-handed in his recent declaration that the niqab was “not welcome.” This piece of hard evidence, supplied by data from two domestic intelligence agencies, makes it unlikely that the center-right Sarkozy would pursue an absolute ban. The hyperactive leader is known for his pragmatism, and he doesn’t want to appear too extremist.
The report comes amid a French legislative commission’s investigation on the use of the full veil in public places. The panel seeks to address the style’s popularity, and it will make a recommendation about the usefulness of a ban.
But there is linguistic confusion about the full veil. The Islamic article of clothing in question is actually the niqab (originally from Saudi Arabia), rather than the burka (popular in Afghanistan). An explanatory diagram in Le Point shows the differences between the three primary types of Muslim veil.
The evolution of conservative Islamic fashion does not stop there. In mid-August controversy erupted at a Paris pool surrounding the “burqini,” a bathing suit designed by Australian company Ahiida to uphold the modesty of Muslim women.
An editorial accompanying the niqab statistic in left-leaning Le Monde criticized the need to “legislate for an exception” and further stigmatize French Islam. Declaring the niqab to be a phénomène ultraminoritaire (very rare phenomenon), the editorial recognizes that the several hundred women who wear the niqab are not sufficiently integrated into French culture.
The French are fierce defenders of their secular republic and will defend women’s rights against fundamentalist religious customs such as the veil. But there are disagreements about whether it would be helpful to legislate religious expression in the public sphere.
“We cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” said the French president in June, frustrating many cultural commentators such as a blogger at “Moor Next Door“:
The trouble the French may want to worry about is not the burqa as it is worn in France today, but that such a ban, as the headscarf ban has done, will make the garment a greater symbol of Muslim identity and sign of cultural defiance. France has done a good job at finding ways of alienating racial and religious minorities. Indeed, among Western nations it is a leader in this field. This is a quality that does little to further the assimilationist cause the French so actively pursue.
The Le Monde report indeed suggests that most of the 367 women in question are under 30 and wear the niqab to make an explicit political point to defy French society — and in some cases, rebel against their own families. The vast majority of French Muslims reject the full body veils, according to the French intelligence reports. Moreover, according to the French Council of Muslim Worship, wearing the niqab is a personal, cultural choice.
But, unlike the U.S., France values secularism even more than the right to free expression of religion. A “burka ban” would never pass muster in the U.S. But French politicians insist that they will not fight a second battle to separate church from the French state. The first church-state battle was with the Catholic church, from which the government legally separated in 1905.
In 2004, France received much criticism after banning the headscarf in public schools. The law was one of many factors that led to more than a month of civil unrest by minority youths across France in November 2005.
France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated around 5 million. But France does not keep official statistics on race or religion, so this figure could easily be much higher. Regardless, just one in every 90,000 French women wear the full-body veil. And apparently one-quarter of them are converts to Islam.
One French Muslim organization that has been discouraging women to wear the full veil is Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Founded by Fadela Amara, a liberal Muslim woman of North African origin, the group promotes a modern combination of Islam and feminism.
Amara, now a minister in Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s right-leaning government, has become far more popular among politicians than among folks in la banlieue (working-class suburbs). Amara told Le Parisien last year:
The burka is a prison, it’s a straitjacket…It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes and which is totally devoid of democracy.
– Ben Piven