A bill to outlaw the Islamic burka garment is to be voted on today in the French Senate.
The ban would affect only a tiny minority of Muslim women – estimated at less than 2,000 – making it far less controversial than France’s 2004 ban on Muslim headscarves in classrooms, which proliferated in heavily immigrant neighbourhoods.
However, many Muslims believe the latest legislation is but one more blow to France’s second religion, and risks raising the level of Islamophobia in a country where mosques, like synagogues, are sporadic targets of hate.
The proposed law was passed overwhelmingly by the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on July 13. The expected green light from the Senate would make it definitive once the president signs off on it – barring amendments and an eventual decision by dissenting MPs to seek the opinion of the Constitutional Council. At least 60 are needed to ask the council to decide whether the bill meets constitutional muster.
The measure would outlaw face-covering veils on the street, including those worn by tourists from the Middle East and elsewhere. It is aimed at ensuring gender equality, women’s dignity and security, as well as upholding France’s secular values – and its way of life.
Backers insist it is not anti-Muslim but is aimed at getting all Muslims to integrate fully into French society. Ironically, the measure may keep some women cloistered in their homes to avoid exposing their faces in public.
Muslim leaders concur that Islam does not require a woman to hide her face. However, they have voiced concerns that a law forbidding them to do so would stigmatise the French Muslim population, which at an estimated five million is the largest in western Europe. Numerous Muslim women who wear the face-covering veil have said they are now being harassed in the streets.
The bill to ban the veil would take effect only after a six-month period set aside for mediation and explanation, in other words, time for women to reflect and perhaps adapt to life with an uncovered face.
The Interior Ministry estimates the number of women who fully cover themselves at some 1,900, with a quarter of them converts to Islam and two-thirds with French nationality, according to Sen. Francois-Noel Buffet, in charge of the bill in the Senate.
The French parliament wasted no time in working to get a ban in place, opening an inquiry shortly after Conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy said in June 2009 that full veils that hide the face are “not welcome” in France.
Just 15 months later, the Senate is expected to give the French president his wish. The bill calls for (€150) fines or citizenship classes for any woman caught covering her face, or both. It also carries stiff penalties for anyone such as husbands or brothers convicted of forcing the veil on a woman.
Critics of the bill claim that it tramples on France’s precious liberties. Even the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative body, advised in May against going forward with the legislation because there is “no incontestable legal basis” for a general ban on burka-style veils.
The bill is, therefore, worded to trip safely through legal minefields. For instance, the measure is called “Forbidding the Dissimulation of the Face in the Public Space” and it makes no mention of “woman” or “veil.”
The language was tweaked in similar fashion when a ban on Muslim headscarves was passed in 2004, with the law outlawing all “ostentatious” religious symbols, including large Christian crosses.