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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

France rips off the burqa

23 September, 2010 - 00:00

On September 14, the upper house of the French parliament voted through a law banning the wearing of burqas (an all-enveloping cloak worn by some Muslim women) and niqabs (face veil) in public places. According to the Associated Press, 246 Senate members voted for the ban, with only one against it. In July 2010, this law was passed by the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the parliament.

The law banning the wearing of the burqa and niqab triggered a heated discussion in France. In a poll held by the American Pew Research Center, 82 percent of respondents supported the ban on the wearing of traditional Muslim clothes in public places. The “burqa ban” was also supported by president Nicolas Sarkozy. According to him, wearing garments that completely conceal the body and face challenges national values, while the burqa and niqab are symbols of female subjugation.

The critics of the “burqa ban” maintain that France is provoking an aggressive response from Muslims, more than five million of whom are living in the country, and infringing upon their right to freedom of conscience. The advocates of the law insist that they fight for women’s rights and champion the principle of equality of all citizens.

Sociologists estimate that the new law will affect nearly 1.8 thousand female French residents — the number of women wearing the burqa or the niqab. “We had opposed the decision even prior to the beginning of discussions in the parliament, and we are not changing our opinion now. A radical ban is no solution,” believes Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

The international human rights organization Amnesty International also spoke out against the ban. “A total ban on face veils violates the rights of those women who wear the burqa or niqab as a manifestation of their religious beliefs,” said John Dalhuzen, the organization’s expert on discrimination in Europe.

If the burqa ban is not challenged before the Constitutional Court, it will come into effect in six month, i.e., March, 2011. The Constitutional Council will be examining the bill for a month.

After the enactment of the ban, women will not be allowed to hide their faces not only at schools, universities, and state institutions, but also on the street. The law bans not only French citizens from wearing face veils, but also tourists, including those from the Middle East and Islamic states.

A violation of the law is punishable by a 150 euro fine. Moreover, after being fined, the guilty women will have to attend classes on French legislation. Coercing a woman to wear the burqa involves a much graver punishment: a 30,000 euro fine and one year in prison. The sum and the term are doubled if the victim was a minor.

“Forcing a woman to wear a certain type of garment is a new form of slavery, which is unacceptable and does not conform with the spirit of our republic,” maintain the authors of the bill. Their opponents retort, “And what with the freedom of personality, the liberty of consciousness, and of religion?”

Kenza Drider, one of the Muslim activists in Paris, said that she would never take off her face veil, despite the threat of the fine. As soon as she is fined, she will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Other Muslim women say they would rather stay home than give up the burqa.

“I’ll just ask others to do shopping for me, and I’ll stay home and pray,” said Oum Al Khyr (45), resident of a Parisian suburb. In her opinion, the new bill, supposed to integrate Muslim women in society, is doing the contrary and isolates them.

In April, 2010 Belgium became the first European country to officially ban the wearing of the niqab and burqa in public streets and elsewhere. The offenders are subject to a fine or one to seven days in prison.

In France, the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) to schools and universities has been illegal since 2004. In the Netherlands, it is prohibited to wear the burqa and niqab anywhere in public places. Hijabs are not allowed at schools in eight federal states of Germany. They are also banned from schools, colleges, and offices in Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

Since March, 2009 Kyrgyzstan has joined the list of countries where the hijab is not allowed in schools. Students in hijabs will not be allowed on the premises of university campuses in Syria. As Syria’s Minister of Higher Education Giath Barakat said, the wearing of the face veil challenges the academic values and traditions of Syrian universities.

Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Egypt’s Islamic spiritual leader, prohibited female students to wear burqas at university Al Azkhar — one of the major educational centers of Islam.