Divided Over The Veil


As the first address by a French president to that country’s Parliament since 1873, many expected Nicolas Sarkozy’s 22 June speech to refer to matters of great importance and controversy. They were proved to be right. But although Sarkozy spoke of the economic crisis and the European Union’s future, what was remembered most was his statement on full-body Islamic veils.

Known elsewhere as the burqa and the niqab, the French tend to use both terms interchangeably, calling them voile intégral. The burqa is a loose head-to-toe garment, covering the woman’s face with a mesh screen, and is worn mostly in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, while the niqab is a full-body veil, usually in black, covering the whole face, except for a slit for the eyes. According to the conservative French daily Le Figaro, both garments are worn in France by several thousand women.

In his speech, Sarkozy said the burqa and niqab were "not religious symbols, but symbols of women’s debasement and oppression" and therefore "were not welcome" in France, a country that is home to a 5-million-strong Muslim minority, but which is also a secular state where a 2004 law already banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools.

The President’s speech has added heat to a debate already arousing strong emotions. Some, such as Mohammed Moussaoui of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, have accused the right-wing president of attempting to "stigmatise Islam and the Muslims of France", while the fiercely secular part of the society has supported Sarkozy in what it perceives as a struggle for defending the French principle of secularism, also known as laïcité. A day after Sarkozy’s address, the Parliament created a commission in order to further study the wearing of the full-body veils in France.

Many observers perceived the President’s speech as some sort of a reaction to US president Barack Obama’s famous 4 June address in Cairo, aimed at reaching out to the Muslim world. In his speech, Obama called on the West to "avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear" and accept Muslim women’s right to choose their lifestyle. "Sarkozy’s response was also based on a defense of freedom, though from a different perspective", wrote the American Christian Science Monitor, "the difference broadly comes down to one of ‘freedom to’ versus ‘freedom from’."

Surprisingly, even the French Government, formed by the President’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, has been divided over the proposed legislation that would ban wearing full-body veils in public. Secretary of State for Sports Rama Yade, a Muslim herself, said she would embrace the ban if it protected women from being forced to wear the burqa. Education Minister Xavier Darcos, on the other hand, even though he called the burqa "a walking oppression", said he was not in favour of any restrictions whatsoever, while Immigration Minister Eric Besson has criticised the ban, saying that "on the French streets everyone is free", and that "it would be of great risk to touch this balance."

"Naturally, it is outrageous that some women are forced to wear the burqa", argues Mathieu Lindon, a columnist for the left-wing daily Libération, known for being highly critical of the incumbent president, "but we are told that in France nowadays, we see even arranged marriages. Does it mean that we should ban marriages, too?"

Meanwhile, the Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda has also "contributed" to the debate, threatening France with hard consequences if the ban was introduced. "We shall take our revenge on France and its interests abroad with all measures, for the sake of our daughters’ and sisters’ honor," said the message released by the organisation’s leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.

The discussed ban drew sharp criticism from moderate circles in the Muslim world, too. The pan-Arabic newspaper of record Al-Hayat called on the French to "respect people’s traditions and private lives". However, there were also Muslims who expressed their support for banning the full-body veils. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled simply and directly: "Ban the burqa". Explaining why she would embrace the ban, Eltahawy evoked her personal experience:

"I wore a headscarf for nine years. An argument I had on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore a burqa helped seal for good my refusal to defend it. Dressed in black from head to toe, the woman asked me why I did not wear the burqa. I pointed to my headscarf and asked her "Is this not enough?". "If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?", she asked. "I am not candy", I answered. "Women are not candy."

And France surely is not a lone island in the middle of Europe. The "veil issue" is a major topic in Holland also, where in 2006, the government announced it would ban the wearing of burqa at schools. In the end no ban was applied, but the public debate that it sparked off revealed a profound change in Holland’s society. The Dutch, once known for being one of Europe’s most welcoming nations towards Arabic-speaking immigrants, have lost much of their faith in Muslim integration in Europe since the murder of film director Theo van Gogh, stabbed to death by an Islamic fundamentalist accusing him of anti-Muslim bias, in 2004.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been trying to annul a law that forbids wearing headscarves at public universities and state institutions. Both burqa and niqab are rarely seen among Turkish women, and those who decide to cover their heads usually do it with headscarves, loosely covering their hair. Legalising the headscarf in universities was one of AKP’s major electoral promises, before it came to power in 2002, but the Turkish Constitutional Court, seeing itself as a defendant of Turkey’s secular identity, has rejected all legislative attempts to lift the ban up to date.

As some secular, mostly Christian-inhabited states are becoming more favourable to the banning of Islamic full-body veils, a secular, mostly Muslim-inhabited Turkey seems to be moving in quite the opposite direction. Those contradictory developments, as well as the passionate debates that the "veil issue" continues to provoke, show the influence of Europe’s growing Muslim minority, which is estimated at about 52 million (excluding Turkey).

Whatever the outcome, the debaters must bear in mind that if any side’s voice is to be ignored or ridiculed, they will still be living next door to the people they disregarded.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.