By Hajer Naili
July 30, 2013
Since youth riots last week over a police identity-check of a woman wearing a niqab, France has resumed debate of a 2011 law banning the face veil. Critics of the ban say it is part of a pattern of Muslim stigmatization.
Credit: Steve/Baalel on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(WOMENSENEWS)– The debate on the ban of face veils in public places in France has intensified since July 18, when police in the Paris suburb of Trappes arrested a man in connection with authorities’ efforts to check the identity of his veiled wife, triggering at least two nights of youth rioting and confrontations with police.
The Versailles state prosecutor said the woman’s husband assaulted one of the officers and tried to strangle him and was immediately taken into custody at the police station. The husband denied the accusation and said the officers were violent toward his mother-in-law who was also present during the identity check.
The police asked his wife to remove her niqab–the veil covering most of a woman’s face– in order to identify her. She agreed to do so but not in front of bystanders, according to her husband, who gave an interview to a local television station.
In the wake of the unrest, French left-wing Sen. Esther Benbassa has called for an end to the law banning the face-veil, which has led to the arrests of about 420 women since its passage in 2011, according to the Observatory of Laicité (Secularism), a Paris-based group working with the prime minister’s office. Most of the women who have been arrested are under the age of 30 and were born in France, reported Le Journal du Dimanche.
Tensions over the treatment of veiled women had been rising before the Trappes riots.
The Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France found in its annual report for 2012 that 84 percent of Islamophobic acts in France were against women and 77 percent of verbal and physical attacks were against veiled women.
Each week in France, on average, two women are victims of an aggression because of their affiliation to religion, according to the report.
The Ministry of Interior estimates that the ban affects only between 400 and 2,000 women.
“We have to reconsider the law . . . what’s a law for 400 women?” Benbassa said, reported the French radio station RMC. “We cannot continue to restrict the freedom of people and expect a positive outcome.”
Boubacar Sene is the communications director for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. “We can indeed wonder what is the aim and point of a law that addresses about 400 women if it is not to stigmatize a religion and create confusion,” Sene told Women’s eNews in a phone interview. “The majority of Muslims in France live their religion in discretion and abide by the laws and the republic’s values.”
Jean-Paul Garraud, a member of the right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) who drafted the law, disagrees, saying the ban should be kept in place. “We are here to defend our democracy and not to tolerate treatment enslaving women,” he told the radio station RMC.
On July 23, Interior Minister Manuel Valls, from the Socialist Party (PS), also expressed support for the ban. “The law banning the full veil has nothing to do with Islam but it is a law liberating women,” Valls told the National Assembly, the Huffington Post reported.
Veiled Moms Banned
The face veil ban is not a clearly partisan debate. President François Hollande, a socialist elected in May 2012, along with several socialist politicians and intellectuals lean in favor of some kind of restraint on public veiling.
Recently, for instance, some veiled Muslim women were not allowed to accompany their children on school trips.
In 2012, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a memo recommending that schools preserve the “neutrality of public service” on school trips by requiring veiled mothers to remove their hijabs, the Muslim headscarf, if they want to participate. The memo leaves schools free to decide for themselves. Despite petitions from Muslim mothers, the memo has not been countermanded by the socialists, The Guardianreported.
While there is no law that specifically bars mothers in headscarves from school trips, legal experts warn that doing so would contravene European human rights legislation, added the British newspaper.
In addition to the face-veil ban, Muslim women wearing the hijab, under a 2004 French law, are also currently banned from public schools and jobs in public sector.
At the end of the 1980s, the Muslim veil or hijab, which only covers the hair, first attracted major political notice when three female students were expelled from middle school for refusing to remove it to attend classes.
Twenty years later in 2003, former President Jacques Chirac launched a group to study the preservation of secularism in France.
In 2004, a law banning the display of any prominent religious signs in public schools–except university–was passed, which included the Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippahs and the prominent display of Christian crosses.
In 2007, the law was broadened to include “minor” religious signs such a bandana that has been often worn as an alternative to hijabs by Muslim women to circumvent the ban.
There have been some attempts to extend this ban to the private sector. In March, the French Court of Cassation voided the 2008 dismissal of a Muslim nurse from a private daycare center because she refused to stop wearing the hijab. Following the court’s decision, Hollande suggested that a new law should be drafted over whether religious symbols such as headscarves could be worn by staff in private daycare centers and eventually to extend the law to other areas of the private sector.
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, sidestepped a request for comment on such a law affecting veiled women in the private sector. “Muslims are not here to give their opinion in favor of or against a law that the government will propose,” he said in a phone interview. “We are in system where religion and state are separated. Therefore the religious cannot interfere on a decision that would be voted by parliament.”
Yet, Boubakeur says that another law could contribute to creating more tensions with Muslims in France.
Islamophobic attacks in France increased 35 percent during the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2012, the Observatory of Islamophobia announced July 23, Le Monde reported.
Several veiled Muslim women were attacked on the streets in different parts of France over the last few months. In one of the latest incidents, a pregnant veiled woman was attacked in Argenteuil, in the suburb of Paris. She miscarried a few days later.
In April, a female Muslim student was expelled from school because she was wearing a headband hiding part of her hair and a long black skirt. The principal of the school considered her outfit a display of her faith.
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France also reports similar cases against veiled women in France. Some female students have been barred from taking exams in certain schools or were recently prevented from entering some high schools to pick up their results of the baccalaureat, said Sene, the group’s communications director.
“France sees Islam as a religion that cannot adapt to French secularism,” said Donia Bouzar, a French anthropologist specializing in Islam, in a phone interview, “that cannot live with its time, where there is no equality between men and women. All these prejudices are reinforced by fundamentalist groups, which led to this climate of aggression.”
Bouzar, in 2010, was the first to be heard by the commission in charge of drafting the law banning the face veil. She said she opposed a law that would target a specific religion but wanted to see something done because “people need to be identifiable.” She disagrees with the interpretation of the niqab as Islamic attire, saying the face veil represents a rigid interpretation of Islam by radical groups.
“But somehow the law became a stigmatization tool because of what has been said during the debates,” Bouzar said. “The commission that was in charge of drafting the bill became a place where Islam was put in trial and where more amalgams were spread.”
Critics of Sarkozy lay much of the blame for this stigmatization on the former president, who campaigned for the 2011 law banning the niqab from public places and in 2009 launched a “National Identity Debate” in which he criticized the Muslim community for their lack of “integration.”
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.