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Why Does France Want to Ban Burqas?

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
July 14, 2010

Anxiety over Muslim integration in Europe, or the lack of it, was on display when the French Parliament's lower house voted overwhelmingly on July 13 to ban the all-encompassing burqa and the full-face-covering niqab in public. The ban applies to public space defined broadly, including not only government offices and public transport, but also streets, parks, and private businesses. The law fines female violators 150 euros, and imposes steeper penalties, including jail time, for men found to be pressuring female relatives to cover their faces. Other European countries, and the provincial government of Quebec, are considering similar bills.

The French legislation, despite posing constitutional problems, passed with surprisingly little dissent. President Nicolas Sarkozy himself lobbied for it, saying that imprisonment "behind a mesh . . . is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity." The National Assembly, or lower house, concurred, voting for the ban 335-1 on the grounds that it is necessary to maintain the French values of individualism and human dignity. Some also cited security reasons. The Socialists boycotted the vote, but not because they disagreed with the ban, only with how broadly it was applied.

Although critics accused Sarkozy of courting the far-right with his anti-burqa comments, polls show more than 80 percent of voters support the ban.

Many mainstream Muslim leaders in France, while they opposed the law because it targets Muslim women, nevertheless are no fans themselves of the full-face veil and discourage women from wearing it. They recognize the barrier it poses to Muslim assimilation in French society and the fear of Muslims it stirs in the broader population. They also insist that there is no Quranic requirement for women to cover their face. Indeed, wearing the niqab is a practice contested within Islam. The late grand sheikh of al-Azhar in Cairo, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, described the niqab as a "cultural tradition that had nothing to do with Islam." By most counts, of the 5 to 6 million Muslims living in France, fewer than two thousand women wear the full veil. (An August 2009 French intelligence report estimated the number to be under four hundred.) According to Ministry of Interior estimates, a quarter of women wearing the face cover in France are converts to Islam born into non-Muslim families.

While the ban on the niqab and burqa has been argued in support of women's rights and freedoms in France, the legislation is really more of an attempt to blunt the rise of fundamentalism. Yes, the ban might be to the benefit of some newer female immigrants to France whose families cling to cultural traditions and continue to make them cover up completely. But it will also be used by conservative Islamic groups to exacerbate broader Muslim concerns of feeling targeted and discriminated against by such measures. Whether the law helps dull the allure of fundamentalism in France or just further fans the flames of Muslim alienation remains to be seen.

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