The French struggle to debate burqas

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.

In the latest uproar, a French convert to Islam who wore a "burquini" to a public pool near Paris was denied entry and has claimed religious discrimination, according to wire service reports. Pool officials said they banned the fully-covered 35-year-old woman out of sanitary concerns since swimmers are not allowed to wear baggy clothing in pools. Excessive garb could obscure skin infections, they said, and pose a health risk to other swimmers.

Fadela Amara, a politician and a former president of the woman’s rights group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (which roughly translates as "Neither whores nor submissives") told Le Parisien that she was for a total burqa ban, calling the garment a “coffin that kills fundamental freedoms.” Cattan has argued that in order to have a real debate and to determine if a law is in order, a proper count of the number of women affected needs to take place and that her organization would hire a sociologist to come with a more realistic figure. She was skeptical of the government’s figure for the number of burqa-wearers in France, which was released suddenly in late July by a service of the Ministry of Interior, which has not disclosed how it arrived at the number. After its release, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris’s main mosque, questioned on French radio why the national debate was necessary given the small number of women concerned.

But even if the ban affects a small number of women, there is no plan for helping them adjust. Earlier this year Human Rights Watch published a report titled “Discrimination in the name of Neutrality,” about the effect of a headscarf ban for classroom teachers and other civil servants in Germany. It concluded that “the bans have caused some women to give up their careers or to leave Germany, where they have lived all their lives.”

Any ban, Cattan said, should take the womens' rights into consideration and not make matters worse for those who perhaps are already in a delicate position.

Are we just going to “lock them up and throw away the key,” she asked?