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The French struggle to debate burqas

Confusion reins in national uproar over the ban of the garment worn by some Muslim women.

A woman wearing a niqab walks in the Tuileries Garden in Paris July 25, 2009. French legislators set up a panel to look into the spread of full burqas and niqabs among Muslim women in France and will hand in its report by the end of the year. (Sandra Auger/Reuters)

PARIS — When considering that more than an estimated 5 million Muslims reside in France, the government’s calculation that 367 women nationwide wear a burqa might seem negligible,  but the debate over legislation to outlaw burqas has been anything but.

Following President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that the burqa was “not welcome” in France because it “imprisons women” and “undermines their dignity,” an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink debate ensued. Pundits and politicians, theologians and sociologists have added complexity to an already thorny issue.

“Everything is mixed up; it should not be taken as something religious,” said Olivia Cattan, head of the women’s rights group Paroles de Femmes. She was among a first wave of experts called before the National Assembly in July to offer her point of view to politicians collecting information that will form the basis for recommendations on the matter expected by the end of the year. The current debate echoes a similar one that preceded the banning of Muslim headscarves in French schools in 2004. Following a year of commissions and studies, the government, relying heavily on its principle of secularism, banned the headscarf in public places, along with other “conspicuous” religious symbols including large Catholic crosses or turbans worn by Sikhs.

Cattan said that this time around there seemed to be confusion in the debate. Would all Islamic forms of women’s dress be banned? Is the legislation aimed at the burqa, once mandatory under the Taliban for all women in Afghanistan, which has a mesh cloth covering the eyes; the niqab, a veil that covers the face but has a cutout slot for the eyes; or the hijab, which covers the hair but not the face? Other styles include the chador, the long cloak usually worn by women in Iran, and the abaya, a loose robe-like garment worn by Saudi women who might also wear a veil to cover the hair or face.

Cattan condemned what she termed “spiritual ignorance” worldwide and the atmosphere that made religion such a difficult topic to broach, especially in France, where “religion is a dirty word for some."

"Today, we don't know one another's religion,” she said. “Here, we are afraid of everything.”

Stephane Rolland, an haute couture designer who has created abayas that can cost 20,000 euros and more, said his clients — whether from Turkey, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or North Africa — have a variety of reasons for their mode of dress. For some, being covered offered protection from unwanted male attention, for others it was a matter of tradition or of saving their beauty for the eyes of their husbands, a sentiment in which he could find an “interesting,” even “seductive” element. But as an artist, it was not for him to judge his clients’ choices. “All cultures interest me,” he said from his showroom just off the chic Champs Elysees, where he has noticed more and more veiled and covered women over the years.