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Guardian: France's Burka Barrier

Author: Amel Boubekeur
June 25, 2009

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Amel Boubekeur writes that the controversy surrounding Nicolas Sarkozy's comments on the full-face veil in France has excluded the people it most concerns - the women who wear it.

For a week now, the hundred or so French women who wear the sitar (a veil that covers the face, incorrectly referred to as the burka) or the niqab have been at the heart of the French political debate. Nicolas Sarkozy made a speech to parliament stating that the burka was not welcome in France as it was incompatible with women's rights and adding that France shouldn't be afraid to defend its values. A new commission has been set up to determine the best ways to combat the adoption of the full veil, and will eventually propose a law banning it from public spaces.

The role of the state today is different to the one it had in 2004, when a law made it illegal to wear the hijab in schools. This isn't about the republic aiming to preserve the neutrality of its secular institutions by forbidding pupils to wear religious symbols. This time, it is about intervening directly in the private choice of women, because that choice would be incompatible with living in France. The different opinions generated by the debate reveal the difficulties faced by the French state over the past 50 years in determining how best to accommodate its 5 million Muslims.

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