For the sake of the flow of this article, whenever I refer to “burqa” or “full veil” I am referring to both the burqa and niqab, but not the abaya, chador, or hijab.
The minute that anyone finds out I’m politically oriented and lived in France, their first response is, “What do you think of the burqa ban?”
I am supposed to say that as a feminist I feel conflicted between the uncomfortable image of a completely shrouded woman and the fact that though she is shrouded, she is shrouded by choice. I am supposed to say that one should never force a woman to wear the burqa, yet one should never deny her the right to wear it. I am supposed to go on a long, rambling academic diatribe about how the hijab can actually be liberating through symbolizing a woman’s submission to God and spirituality, rather than western, often degrading and overly sexualized cultural values. I am supposed to spit out a stream of theoretical pontifications and academic jargon all the while actually saying nothing.
For this reason, I am sick and tired of the “debate” over the burqa ban. The issue at stake is not the burqa. It is Islamophobia; as per usual, the war of cultural values is being fought on the battleground of women’s bodies.
Islam is the second largest, and the fastest growing religion in France. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants come from Francophone ex-colonies in the Maghreb, primarily Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. While the French Republic explicitly prohibits performing a census distinguishing between its citizens based on race or beliefs, a Pew Forum study estimates that there were 4.7 million Muslims in France in 2010. Less than 2,000, or 0.04% wear the burqa or niqab.
As of Monday, April 11th, any woman “caught” wearing the full veil in public will be escorted to a police station where she will be instructed to unveil for identification, fined 150 Euros, and required to take French citizenship classes.
This law is not about saving these 2,000 women from their patriarchal, oppressive cultures. It is about re-enacting colonialism on French soil, teaching the culturally backwards “other” the “superior” ways of the west. It is an effort to further ostracize an already stigmatized population to “purify” France.
France has a strict tradition of la laïcité, roughly translated as mandating the absence of religion in government or state affairs, as well as the absence of government and the state in religious affairs. The state is prohibited from recognizing, promoting, or funding any specific religious belief be it Catholicism or Atheism. As of 2004, conspicuous religious symbols such as a kippa or hijab, are explicitly banned in public schools. This stirred controversy, as many crucifixes and star of David symbols are small enough to be tucked into clothing, but young Muslim women had to remove their head scarves before entering the classroom. Though many French citizens maintain strong religious traditions, they are generally conducted in private as it is considered socially polite to be discreet about one’s religion.
Islamic traditions are the exact opposite. In predominantly Islamic countries, religious and state institutions are fused as one as Islamic law shapes state laws. The call to prayer punctuates daily life and references to God pepper the Arabic language. Depending on their country of origin, practicing Muslim men and women often wear veils (either full or partial), thobes, or turbans to demonstrate their personal submission to God and Islam. These displays of religious devotion are seen as valuable, honorable, and essential to personal integrity and social respectability.
It is no wonder that the two cultures are at odds with one another.
Though the ban actively imposes state regulations on a religious practice, French President Nicolas Sarkozy claims that the burqa and niqab violate the principles of la laïcité. While many agree and argue that the full veil is too explicit a religious symbol for France, this is only one example among many on Sarkozy’s notoriously racist track record. In 2009, Sarkozy’s right-wing government launched the infamous “debate on national identity,” a paranoid response to increasing immigration, extrapolating xenophobic criteria in an effort to strictly define what it means to be French. After this, but before the burqa ban was officially imposed, Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) called for another clearly exclusionary debate on the place of Islam in a secular society.
In Paris, as you take the RER train further away from the city and into the outskirts, better known as the banlieue, the ethnic composition of the passengers changes drastically. Classic français de souche or “native French” are replaced by Maghrebin and West African immigrants. The language spoken is still French, but a more rhythmic variety that is occasionally alternated with Arabic. These passengers are most likely commuting from immigrant housing projects in the banlieue to low paying service industry jobs in Paris. Though they left North and West Africa to escape hopeless economic conditions and seek new opportunities, they continue to suffer from a lack of economic mobility and are perpetually stigmatized as the immigrant “other.” The separation between them and the français de souche is palpable, stagnant, and will only expand as legislation that segregates the two communities from each other is implemented.
As far as the burqa “debate” is concerned, it is the same as any debate: nuanced and unsolvable. There are plenty of women who wear the burqa or niqab as a symbol of their personal spirituality. There are also plenty of women who are forced to veil by their husbands, fathers, and other men in their lives. What this “liberating” law will do is inhibit all veiled women from participating in the public sphere by intimidating them from conducting their daily lives. As “Karima,” a niqabi living in Paris told the French Publication Rue89:
“I am not afraid of the police or the fine. I am afraid of the daily troubles –what if my boulangere refuses to serve me? I could go to the Arab bakeries, but these are more expensive. What if a cashier at the super market reports me to the police? I am afraid of these daily troubles. If I have an accident, I will not be able to go to the hospital because they might refuse to make an appointment for me.
My life as a mobile woman ending terrifies me. What am I supposed to do if I stay home all day? Sort the trash? Even then, I would doubtlessly be reported to the police by a neighbor who works for La Front National.”
-Quoted from Rue89
In other words, women will most likely not embrace the opportunity to shed their burqas and promenade down the Champs Élysées in a state sponsored miniskirt. Instead, they will continue to be stigmatized as Muslims and further segregated from the rest of French society.