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Banning the burqa

April 13, 2012

The French government introduced a ban on wearing a full veil in public a year ago this week. DW looks at how life has changed for Muslim women in France, and the challenges they face on the road to integration.

Image: DW

Mabrouka is playing with her two-year-old daughter in her apartment in the northern suburbs of Paris. This is a familiar playground for little Asma, as the pair no longer get to go out very often: Mabrouka is one of an estimated 2,000 women in France who wear a niqab - a full veil, covering everything but her eyes. And for a year now, she's been banned from wearing it in public.

The 30-year-old, who asked DW not to publish her last name, still ventures out occasionally to the local shops. By wearing the niqab in public, Mabrouka is risking a fine of up to 150 euros ($200), or being asked to take a citizenship course. She says the police generally turn a blind eye when she's with her daughter, but the bank manager has told her he doesn't want her entering the local bank. which means her husband has to take care of her bank transactions.

The law was introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right government on April 11, 2011 in the hope that it would help improve security, promote gender equality and protect the dignity of women. But for those who insist on wearing the full veil, it seems the opposite is the case. Mabrouka claims she has lost much of her freedom, and is now more reliant than ever on her husband.

Reciting the Quran in Paris
Many Muslims in France are more concerned about the ban on religious symbols in schoolsImage: DW

"It's only now that I've become dependent,” Mabrouka told DW. “I worked for five years, and I wasn't married at the time. I wore the full veil, I used public transport, I went on long journeys, I went out with my friends … and now I have to content myself with my little area and nothing more.”

French Muslims have other concerns

Despite the attention the ban has received, it only affects a relatively small number of women. According to the French justice ministry, there were roughly 100 incidents of niqab-wearers being stopped by police in the first six months of the ban.

Last September, Hind Ahmas, 32, and Najate Naït Ali were fined 120 euros and 80 euros, respectively, after being stopped near the town hall in Meaux, east of Paris, where they had intended to present a birthday cake to Jean-Francois Cope. He is mayor of Meaux and the architect of the ban. Ahmas and Ali have vowed to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, arguing that the law contravenes legislation on personal liberties and freedom of religion.

The vast majority of French Muslims do not cover their faces - and many in the Muslim community are far more concerned about the ban on displaying religious symbols in schools, which came into effect in 2004, and affected many teachers and pupils who wanted to wear the more common hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe - an estimated eight to nine percent of the total population. The vast majority are of North African origin, from the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The Muslim community has often felt challenged by the strict separation of religion and public life, or laïcité, a principle cherished by French people from across the political spectrum.

A former minister in Sarkozy's government, Algerian-born Fadela Amara, described the burqa as a "kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it." But even among Sarkozy's left-wing opponents, there is little support for repealing the law, since secularism is an issue that still unites the fragmented left.

'France is sensitive with regard to its Muslim community'

That's partly why Noura Jaballah, president of the European Forum of Muslim Woman, does not think that the situation will change if socialist candidate Francois Hollande wins the presidential elections in less than a month's time.

Noura Jaballah, president of the European Forum of Muslim Women
Jaballah doesn't think Muslim women should cover their facesImage: DW

"France is sensitive when it comes to its Muslim community," she told DW. "People are scared of those who call themselves Muslims and make bombs, and are aggressive and violent ... even though that's a very small minority of individuals."

That fear surfaced last month with the shootings in Toulouse by self-styled al-Qaeda gunman Mohamed Merah. The killing of seven people, including three children, prompted two high-profile police operations targeting Islamist suspects across France.

"It's clear that this man never knew God," Jaballah says of the gunman. "He never had any sign of belonging to Islam or the Muslim faith. From one day to the next he turned to terrorism, and of course we vigorously condemn this inhuman act."

Jaballah is fighting to deconstruct the prejudices surrounding Muslim women and to bridge the gap between them and the rest of society. She herself wears a headscarf, but not a full veil, and is highly critical of the burqa ban, saying that it has not aided emancipation. On the contrary, she says, "Muslim women have become more marginalized." But she has appealed to Muslims living in Europe to practice a form of Islam that is adapted to the western context.

"I really don't advise Muslim women in Europe to cover their faces with a veil,” Jaballah said. “Anyone who covers their face ends up severing themselves from society. It creates a barrier and hinders participation in public debate."

'It's the ban that's restrictive, not the burqa'

In the Parisian suburbs, Mabrouka is experiencing that very sense of exclusion. But she does not conform to the stereotype of a downtrodden woman. Born in Lyon to Tunisian parents, she works part-time as a private tutor, and continues to visit her students in their nearby homes. She is highly educated, having studied Arabic and history at university, and she's also qualified to teach French as a foreign language.

Election posters in Paris, Saint Denis, March, 2012
It's doubtful whether the 2012 elections will bring any changesImage: DW

She started wearing the niqab seven years ago as a symbol of her devotion to God. She says her husband had nothing to do with her choice, as she was already wearing it when she met him. Under the law, anyone forcing a woman to wear a full veil can be fined up to 30,000 euros, but so far no one has been punished for that offence.

Mabrouka admits that it may seem bizarre to subject herself to such a restrictive life for a piece of cloth, but she claims it's French society, not her religion, that is hampering her freedom. After a year of living under the new law, she's even thinking about leaving the country in which she was born.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life here. I have plans to move away, because I don't want to live like this," she said. "But at the moment it's difficult to choose, because in Europe you have to speak a second language ... and in the Arab countries, there's a lot of tension at the moment. Belgium is a French-speaking country, but they've gone down the same road as France. So for the moment I'm a bit trapped."

Author: Joanna Impey, Paris
Editor: Ben Knight

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