An Islamophobic pro-ban poster
The French decision to ban the burqa in public places has raised a heated debate far beyond Frances's frontiers. On one hand there are the civil libertarians who claim that liberté, égalité and fraternité no longer describes the country, while others (around 70% of the population) support the ban. This may well be a sign of things to come in other European countries. According to recent polls, 71% of Germans support a ban, 62% in the UK and 59% in Spain.
Back in April, when the Belgian Lower House voted overwhelmingly to ban the burqa, the law’s author, Daniel Bacquelaine, a Liberal, said a burqa is incompatible with basic security as everyone in public must be recognizable and clashes with the principles of an emancipated society that respects the rights of all.
In Belgium, local rules ban the burqa, but enforcement is spotty and the new law would outlaw it on a national level. Last year, the city of Brussels fined only 29 women - down from 33 in 2008 - for wearing a burqa—type dress.
In January, Denmark’s centre-right government called the burqa and the niqab out of step with Danish values. It held off on a ban after finding that only two or three women in Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, wear burqas and perhaps 200 wear niqabs.
According to one French lawmaker who supported the law, it is a way to assert French values and help to better integrate Muslim communities into the national way of life.
She said being forced to wear the niqab or the burqa "amounts to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic that is founded on a desire to live together. At a time where our societies are becoming more global and complex, the French people are pondering the future of their nation. Our responsibility is to show vigilance and reaffirm our commonly-shared values".
And the view from the street? "If a motorbike rider has to take his or her helmet off to enter a bank, then the same should hold for the burqa".
Researchers point out that while there are only 5 million or so Muslims living in France, only 1,900 are thought to have adopted the full burqa. Head scarves are far more common. However, another view suggests that as so few women among the French Muslim community, the new law is xenophobic and pandering to the far-right anti-immigrant vote. It is certainly a distraction from the economic problems besetting the country.
The law, if passed by the upper house, as expected, will also apply to tourists visiting the country. One can expect a drop off of Saudi visitors. On the other hand, a travel agent told The View from Fez that a majority of Muslim female tourists swap their traditional clothes for Paris chic at the "drop of a burqa".
The Nekkaz Ploy
The French Government may find the law hard to enforce. Police have already expressed disquiet, saying the social implications of attempting to fine women in public could be problematic. And to add oil to the simmering fire, a French businessman, Rachid Nekkaz, is offering to pay the fines imposed on women who do not comply. It is a brave stance, and serves as a warning to governments that think they can punish people into social conformity. It is an intriguing 21st-century take on civil disobedience; in this case, he is encouraging people to flout the law with the promise that they won’t pay a price. Dissidents have found patrons before, but it is novel that an entire class of possible offenders, thanks to generous donors, may escape a law’s penalties. Mr. Nekkaz is essentially underwriting civil disobedience.
Mr. Nekkaz accepts the bill’s ban on the full-length burka and face-covering niqab in publicly run buildings; it’s the prospect of forbidding it on public streets that riles him: “a violation of constitutional principles,” he calls it. Mr. Nekkaz and his wife have put up €200,000 for the project, and he hopes to raise €800,000 more.
In a recent FT Harris Poll, when respondents were asked if they would support the burka ban if it were accompanied by a clampdown on wearing all religious icons such as the Christian crucifix and the Jewish cappel, only 22 per cent of French people said they supported such a move. In Britain, just 9 per cent of people said they would back such a move.
While the majority of French citizens feel burka is abhorrent and can trap a woman in a virtual prison. Banning it everywhere, however, will do little to emancipate women, and could force more of them into seclusion.
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