Will France Impose a Ban on the Burqa?

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A women shops in a bookstore in Le Bourget near Paris

Secularism is the religion of contemporary France. And the enforcers of that faith have a new target. "Today ... we are confronted by certain Muslim women wearing the burqa, which covers and fully envelops the body and the head like a moving prison," said Andre Gerin, a Communist Party legislator who joined 57 others on Wednesday in signing a motion for a parliamentary committee to study possible legislation to ban the wearing of the traditional costume in public. Despite the fervor of Gerin and his allies, however, the burqa remains sufficiently rare in France that even the legislators railing against it are unable to say how many Muslim women in the country actually wear one. All Gerin would say was, "There are more and more of them, not only in big cities, but in rural settings as well ... We have to break the silence of this country's political leaders on the matter."

Silence is hardly the word to characterize the matter of France and professions of religious piety. Last year the country's highest administrative court denied the naturalization request of an otherwise irreproachable Moroccan woman on the grounds that her wearing a burqa was incompatible with French secularist statutes. On Tuesday, French Scientologists raised complaints of religious intolerance when state prosecutors wrapped up their arguments against the church on charges of organized swindling by requesting that the organization be disbanded and barred in France.

The champions of French secularism note that the Scientology trial is based on fraud accusations, not religious practice. Meanwhile, the burqa offensive is aimed at protecting the rights of women forced to efface themselves by covering their bodies entirely. "The rights of women isn't an issue of a few centimeters of cloth, but the burqa is the symbol of the oppression women suffer, so this debate should be encouraged," says Siham Habchi, president of the Neither Whores Nor Submissive women's movement, referring to the parliamentary initiative.

But what about the rights of Muslim women who honestly feel faith-bound to voluntarily don a burka? Or those prohibited by law from attending public school with the headscarves they wear everywhere else? Why is no one ranting about nuns' habits being "degrading" (as Gerin called the burqa), just as no one lashed out at creeping extremism when then–First Lady Bernadette Chirac covered her head during Vatican visits?

Probably because Catholicism has deep roots in French history and culture and is not viewed as a foreign faith the way Islam is, which, with about 6 million practitioners, is the second largest religion in France. Its practitioners are also growing at a faster rate than Catholics. Indeed, the expanding size of Islam and fears about spreading extremism seem to have emboldened pundits and policy-makers to wade in and legislate aspects of Muslim observance and life in ways that they would be wary of doing with Catholics, Protestants or Jews.

At this point, no Muslim defenders of the rare French burqa have emerged. Indeed, Dounia Bouzar, a specialist on Muslim affairs, notes that while she and many fellow Muslims opposed the headscarf ban as meddling in private matters of choice, she is relieved at action taken on the burqa. "Imposition of this garment on women is one manner Salafists get individuals to renounce their individuality and submit to the extremist cult thinking that masquerades as Islam — but which is an abomination of it," Bouzar says. "That Salafist influence and activity is spreading, and if it takes political action to prevent their cult from leading Muslims astray of Islam, so be it."

France isn't the first nation to consider a burqa ban. In 2006, Dutch officials caused a storm of protest from its Muslim populace by proposing a burqa interdiction. A law imposing a ban may soon be passed. France is not that far yet. The parliamentary motion to form an investigating committee must be approved before that body can be formed. If it is, it must study the burqa and reasons why those women who wear it do so, and consider recommendations whether to ban it. Drafting and voting legislation to that end would take months. Before then, public debate would rage on whether the move is merited — or another example of intolerance toward Islam. "Tolerance of the burqa requires a colonial view of Islam as so backwards that forcing a woman to erase herself that way seems natural," Bouzar argues. "The burqa debate isn't secularity vs. Islam, but manipulation and oppression vs. dignity."