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What was supposed to be a debate about the Islamic veil and the law seeking to ban full-face coverings in public turned into a confused shouting match and brawl that required police intervention to restore order.
The woman’s rights group, Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores, Nor Submissives) whose members wholly support the ban, organized the debate at an elementary school in the Paris surburb of Montreuil on the eve of Wednesday's presentation of the draft legislation to the Council of Ministers.
Invited guests included a member of the Socialist party as well as Lubna Hussein, a journalist who was sentenced to 20 lashes and a fine last year for wearing trousers in public. Ironically, she said, despite a travel ban she was able to smuggle herself out of Sudan because she was dressed in a full niqab.
“It’s a disguise for me,” Hussein said in Arabic through an interpreter, describing the burqa. She spoke about life under a repressive regime as a woman and as a Muslim and explained why she was supportive of a full ban of the burqa in France.
But soon after she made her statements, the crowd's murmurs turned into taunts and shouting.
“How much was this woman paid?” one man hurled, from beyond where I stood amid about 100 people. The crowd included activists, students, veiled women, bearded men and reportedly members of a pro-Palestinian group.
“Why do they always bring us clowns to speak about the religion?” another man shouted.
When a microphone was passed around to give members of the audience a turn to speak, what little sense of order there was descended into chaos. Eventually, fists flew and the pushing and shoving resulted in a melee. Uniformed and plain-clothes officers attempted to bring order and find the culprits.
But before the meeting's sudden end, some of the arguments and provocative statements that could be heard through the cacophony and simultaneous outbursts from the crowd shed some light on the disparate views people have on an issue that has divided the public and politicians alike.
Several members of the audience introduced themselves by stating that, first and foremost, they were French, and that they had every right to speak at the forum.
“I really want us to beat the extremists,” said Marie-France Cavallo, one of the first women to speak. She said she was against a law because she didn't want the extremists to be portrayed as victims.
“We need to change targets and attack the powerful misogynists, like the publicity companies that use scantily clad women to sell cars, soup, pizza, whatever,” the next speaker, a man, said.
One woman said she lamented not being able to approach a veiled woman because the veil served as a barrier to friendly communication. She supported a ban.
“This is a war against Islam,” shouted one man.
“This is not a debate about religion,” came another shout from a corner of the room.
“Is it better to have 12-year-old girls wearing thongs?” yelled another man.
“The key to our freedom is secularism,” said Jean-Pierre Brard, a deputy and city mayor. “We don’t just allow everything in the name of freedom.”
In one corner of the room, a man began shouting at the leader of the host organization.
“Sir, you’re a fascist,” Sihem Habchi, the group’s president, told the man, microphone in hand. “Fascist, get out!”
“I will never cede to provocation,” Habchi told the audience. “We need to banish the burqa from our country and protect women.”
“If we can accept homosexuality, we can accept the burqa, period!” said Leila Djerbi, a 32-year-old medical assistant. She said she didn’t even understand what the law was meant to accomplish and was against banning a few hundred women from wearing an article of clothing.
“Before we discriminated against people who wore glasses," Djerbi said. “Today we’re in the process of deciding who is good enough and is who is not.”
“What does it matter that someone is wearing a burqa,” she asked. “Go take care of more serious problems," she said, addressing politicians who she said seemed to be stirring the debate for political gain. "What if I want to stay home and cook for my husband?" she asked. "As long as I am not hurting anyone, what is the problem?”
A Muslim convert, Rosita Ricki-Bernard, took the floor to describe that her conversion five years ago from Catholicism was “not because of love; not because of marriage but because of conviction.”
“I suffer when I have to take it off,” she said referring to her veil. “Behind me, there is no brother, no father, no husband.”
“I work for myself,” Ricki-Bernard continued. “Do I look like a submissive?”
“You look like a woman from the 19th century,” a woman retorted from the audience.
“Is it dignified for a president’s wife to sell herself on the internet, at an auction?” Ricki-Bernard shot back, referring to a portrait of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, which was auctioned by Christie’s.
“Outside, a person is a citizen not a religious person,” Brard, the politician, told a veiled woman named Djamila as she tried to convince him that the veil posed no threat to anyone.
“What will you do when the Saudis come to shop on the Champs-Elysees?” Djamila asked, wondering how veiled tourists would be treated.
“I am not in favor of selling our soul for money,” Brard replied. “The law applies to everyone.”
After speaking to some young men sporting beards and wearing keffiyehs around their necks, I made my way through the dozen or so officers who were monitoring the exit.
One woman told me she was saddened and disturbed by what she had just witnessed. She came to the meeting with an opinion favoring a law, but with a mind open to other arguments that might have persuaded her otherwise. She left disheartened and even more convinced that a law banning the burqa was necessary, a sentiment shared by several people who also said they came with an open mind.
“It’s not just a problem of clothing,” she said. “It’s a project to create a society that imposes Shariah law.”