Spotlight: France and the Veil

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AFP Photo / AFP / Getty Images

This combination of pictures shows Muslim women wearing various type of Islamic veils, a Hijab (top left), a Niqab (top right) a Tchador (down left) and a Burqa.

France's uneasy relationship with its estimated 5 million Muslims is about to get even more tense. Less than a year after warning that the face-obscuring, full-body Islamic veils worn by some fundamentalist Muslim women "will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," President Nicolas Sarkozy is moving toward an official ban of the garment he derided as "a sign of subservience." On April 21, Sarkozy ordered his government to present a draft law in May to make wearing total veils that the French call burqas illegal in public places.

The move reflects concerns in France that the proliferation of women wearing Islamic scarves and veils is both a sign of growing Muslim fundamentalism and an overt challenge to the nation's fierce secular tradition. Those same considerations fueled France's 2004 law banning all ostentatious religious symbols in public schools, which applied to students of all faiths but passed only after the number of young Muslim women wearing the hijab headscarf grew. Supporters of the pending "burqa ban" argue that the garment serves a dual purpose for extremists: it sends French society a visually arresting message of radical Islam's presence and forces adherents to efface their identity and individuality as a gesture of faith. In announcing Sarkozy's decision, government spokesman Luc Chatel said it took aim at "a symbol of a community's withdrawal and rejection of our values" and a "violation of the dignity of women."

Perhaps, but leftist (and even some conservative) opponents of the initiative wonder how the proposed ban can claim to protect the dignity and rights of women who are voluntarily covering themselves up. Polls show that the public is divided, with just 57% backing the measure. Worse, even people who loathe the full veil as dehumanizing and oppressive say a legal ban would prove counterproductive, causing further resentment among French Muslims who already feel ostracized by their fellow citizens.

"There's a real sentiment that Islam in France is now officially under suspicion--or attack--and this ban will drive some angry and brooding Muslims toward the very extremist cults forcing women under veils," says Dounia Bouzar, a specialist in French Muslim affairs. "Banning the burqa as a public expression of faith also accords it credibility ... when in fact it's an abomination from the Middle Ages." And the ban is possibly overkill, at that. Official figures put the number of women wearing burqas and niqabs at a mere 2,000. That's a statistical blip in a nation of about 65 million--though apparently big enough to justify a ban in Sarkozy's eyes.