For years now, images of burqa clad woman have been as omnipresent in the media as the women themselves have been absent from the streets of Europe. The burqa (declared compulsory by the Taliban in Afghanistan) and the niqab (the cover-all garment popular in Saudi Arabia) have now been targeted by laws in some European countries. Last week France followed Belgium in enforcing a burqa ban in public places.
The debate over France’s new laws has prompted a cacophany of different opinions in the media. Depending where you stand, the laws are an enforcement of the French revolutionary values of liberté, equalité and fraternité; Nicolas Sarkozy’s very own effort to bring on a "clash of civilisations"; an attempt to persecute Muslim minorities; or a veritable fuss about nothing.
The French government says it’s simply trying to enforce France’s common values. The government circular proclaiming the enforcement of the measure bans those garments that "prevent identification" of the wearer. The law mentions explicitly the burqa and the niqab, and also bans the masks and hoodies often worn by some sections of the far left at demonstrations in many European countries. The government publicity features an image of Marianne, the symbol of the French Revolution, with an "uncovered face". The publicity says that all public places will be affected by the law. Police have been given the power to fine those wearing face-covering garments, but they aren’t allowed to physically remove the garment. Only places of worship, houses and cars are technically exempt from the law.
There are doubts about the extent to which the law is to be enforced, reports the French Catholic paper La Croix. The paper pays a visit to Saint-Denis, a poor suburb in the Parisian banlieue notorious for being the place where the 2005 immigrant riots began. In the mayoral office, the government publicity trucked in from the city centre hasn’t yet been unpacked, much less put on display. Managers in a local supermarket and a pharmacist working in Saint-Denis say they won’t be enforcing the law either. Meanwhile the police union says it will be up to the police to decide whether to actually enforce the law, with citation of women depending on the "judgement" of the individual officer, and the burqa ban being among the least serious transgressions of the law they have to deal with.
Yet despite the likelihood that the law won’t be enforced, the ban has provoked fierce debate in the European press this week. In a commentary written during the original debate about the law last year republished this week, Caroline Emcke of German weekly Die Zeit, describes moves to ban the burqa as a type of "liberal racism". She points out that the secularisation prompted by the Enlightenment referred only to the church’s worldly power, and not to believers as such. "What the Enlightenment and liberalism defend is the individual’s right to self-determination," Emcke argues; thus it follows that the state should defend this, rather than curb the individual’s right to choose their own faith.
Emcke says the effect of the law will be to confine veiled women to the home but in an interview with German daily Die Welt, French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter rejects this position directly. "Due to this idiotic argument, swimming pools have started introducing gender-segregated sessions, even though this contravenes Republican equality," she rages. Adding that although she finds Sarkozy has sometimes taken up far-right positions on secularism and immigration, she claims that "no one should fear being accused of Islamophobia for advocating a law that reminds us of our common values and norms".
While Badinter argues that all citizens must be accorded equal treatment, Catalan writer Juan Goytisolo wants Europeans to respect the religious practices of other cultures, says Spain’s ABC. Goytisolo, a leading Spanish writer who lives in the Arab world, says as long as you "adjust to whichever are the human rights [practiced]in a democracy, accepting that these values are not European, but rather universal," you should be allowed to live your life without fear of interference from the state.
Meanwhile, others think Sarkozy has introduced the law because he’s worried about being beaten by far-right National Front leader Marie Le Pen in the 2012 presidential poll. In a commentary published by the far left New Anti-capitalist Party’s organ, Tout Est À Nous, the burqa debate is described as a hysterical number "performed by the French government and reprised by the media" aimed at "recapturing some of the working classes [using the idea of]national identity". The debate serves a second function, continues the paper: it divides the leftist parties, with the majority "falling into the trap of supporting" Sarkozy’s electoral gambit. Only the NAP and the Greens were opposed to the law in parliament last year, says Tout Est À Nous.
In the only other country in Europe where there’s a similar law, Belgium, it seems that the ban is no longer de facto in operation only one year after being officially introduced, says Le Soir of Brussels. The 2010 Belgian law was passed by the lower but not the upper house of parliament before the chambers were dissolved. One year later, with no winner of the election and no government, the law hasn’t been put into effect, and administrative tribunal rulings have found that the framing of the Belgian law contravenes European human rights guidelines.
France’s law, too, is likely to be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, reports Turin’s La Stampa. Kenza Drida, who has worn a veil for 13 years, says her religious freedom has been violated — and she’s going to the court to win it back.
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