France Bans Wearing of the Full Veil in Public

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Last week, the French government prohibited the wearing of the full veil in public spaces. Some see in the policy an attempt to reconfirm the French tradition of ‘laicité’ or secularization; others argue that the move is simply a cynical ploy on the part of President Nikolas Sarkozy to shore up his support among voters on the right. Either way, the new law is bound to remain controversial both within and outside France.

According to an AP report published on the Turkish Today’s Zaman, “The law comes as Muslims face what some see as a new jab at their religion: President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party is holding a debate today on the place of Islamic practices, and Islam itself, in strictly secular but traditionally Catholic France….Muslims have felt stigmatized by the 2004 law banning Islamic headscarves in classrooms and again during the intense debate that preceded the face-veil ban. Muslim leaders are now so irked they have refused any role in the roundtable. France’s top religious leaders — Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists — published a joint statement last week saying the debate could add “to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing.”

Reflecting on the broader trends in Europe, Stefan Simanowitz writes on the Christian Science Monitor that the law is reflective of “Western prejudices” and a knee-jerk reaction to difficult economic times. According to Simanowitz, “In times of economic austerity, it is common for frustrations to be vented on convenient scapegoats, and for centuries, minority or immigrant populations have fulfilled this role. European prejudices have shifted to take on each new wave of immigration — from the French Huguenots in the 16th century and Spanish Jews in the 17th century to more recent waves of immigrants from the Asian and African continents….While post-Second World War Europe has been a place of unparalleled freedom and tolerance, one must be alert to the danger presented by the coincidence of prolonged economic crisis, rising unemployment, declining social welfare provision and growing anti-Islamic feeling.”

Others are less convinced that economic conditions have much to do with the ban. Mohammed Khan, writing on Al Jazeera, accuses the French government of hypocrisy; on the one hand “Sarkozy’s arms-dealer and business acquaintances will rush to the Middle East, to the Gulf, to North Africa, at the next available opportunity to sign multi-billion euro contracts. Here they will intermingle with Muslims, male and female (yes, females also step out of their homes in the Arab world) who, lo and behold, may be veiled. Why are they veiled? Not because their husbands beat them into covering their heads and faces but because they have chosen to do so. (Is it really so hard to believe that they can decide for themselves?) Now France may well have a problem with such a choice. Then it should make a point by breaking all relations with this region, so that the rest of the world knows what the French feel about the practice of niqab, and, for that matter, halal food and Islamic finance.”

Even though counting himself “among those who believe that it is a bad medieval tradition, which has nothing to do with Islam and should better be abandoned,” Mustafa Akyol writes in an op-ed in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, “We cannot use state powers to “liberate” those women from what they wear out of their genuine convictions — just [as] an ideological nudist cannot claim to forcefully “liberate” us from our shirts, pants and underwear….At the end of the day, the trouble within mainstream French political culture is the lack of the “liberté” principle that they superficially cherish in the famous motto of their famous revolution. That is a liberty which is only valid for those who are secularized, and assimilated, enough. That is a liberty, in other words, which is not liberty at all.”

Among the voices speaking against the law is also the head of Croatia’s Islamic Society, Sheikh Shafko Omar Bashic, who was cited on the Iranian Press TV telling “the Vjesnik newspaper in Zagreb that since French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power four years ago, an atmosphere of intolerance towards Muslims has started to bubble up in France, which is home to five million Muslims….Asked about his position on the likelihood of banning the burqa in Croatia, Sheikh Shafko Omar Bashic said he would reject such a measure. He insisted that wearing headscarves in some societies is entrenched in their cultural background and racial origin, and thus cannot be taken away from them.

Interestingly, Iman Kurdi of Arab News expresses a far more measured and restrained view of the law, going to extensive lengths to note,  “The law reflects not so much an antipathy to Islam as an antipathy to extreme visions of Islam and, more importantly, reaffirms French republican values. However, the political context in which it has been framed serves to stigmatize Muslims. It is a real shame that a country that prides itself on its secularism has fallen into the populist trap of using religion for political ends…. Moreover, France is giving itself a bad press. It is the home of Europe’s largest Muslim population, a population that is largely well integrated and proud to be part of the French republic. French Muslims do not see being French and being Muslim as a problem, until now.”

Yet, not everyone is convinced that the ban was the wrong move. The German daily Der Spiegel, which reported over a year ago on “The War on Burqas” sees a broad base of support for the law in France as well as in other European countries: “The French parliament moved on Tuesday to ban full face veils, such as burqas, across the country. A similar law was passed earlier this year in Belgium, and others could soon be considered in other European countries. Human-rights groups warn it could be a huge setback for women’s rights….Public-opinion polls show that more than 80 percent of French citizens support the ban. That sentiment is echoed in other European countries, as well. A survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project released in June found that, in addition to 82 percent in France who would like to see bans on veils that cover the whole face, 71 percent of Germans support a prohibition, 62 percent of Britons and 59 percent of Spaniards.”

 Marie Dhumières reports in the Lebanese The Daily Star that in Lebanon, a country with extensive links with France, people hold contrasting views. “As France’s ban on full-face veils went into effect Monday, making ‘the country of human rights’ the first European state to pass legislation on the niqab, Beirutis appeared to be divided on the issue, although most agreed a similar law could not be implemented in Lebanon….Rania Shehab, who is Muslim, said she believed the niqab presented ‘a bad image of Islam’ but denounced the French ban. ‘I don’t think it’s fair. I’m against extremism, I’m against the niqab, but I’m also against the law. What happened to personal freedom?’ she asked….But 23-year-old Khouloud Znait praised France for the ban, saying that ‘it was time for women to stop wearing niqab,’ and added that ‘people should respect the environment they live in.’”

In the Gulf, Bassma Al Jandaly also finds that many “think the French stand on the niqab ban makes a lot of sense in several ways…. The veil must be banned all over the world, according to Mutassem, an Emirati government employee. ‘People are not free to cover their face,’ he said. ‘Some, if not many, used the veil to cover up some dangerous behaviors that could affect the security of whole nations,’ said the 35-year-old father of three. Women who perform the Haj and Umrah never have to cover their faces, he said. ‘I’m a Muslim, and I strictly follow the rules of Islam, but I cannot deal with someone who keeps their face covered, as I won’t know who that person is.’ He said the hijab remained a must for Muslim women, but the veil was unacceptable and extended full support to the French ban on face veils.”

Despite the heated debate surrounding the ban, some are beginning to look at the practical implementation and enforcement of the law.  As Sarah Elzas of Radio France International puts it, “With certain exceptions, anyone wearing clothing that hides their face in public will face a 150-euro fine, and anyone forcing them to do so will be liable to a 30,000-euro fine, or 60,000 euros in the case of a minor. Of 11 April it will be illegal for anyone to wear a full veil on the street and in parks, in public institutions like train stations and town halls, and in stores and restaurants. The law’s primary targets are Muslim women’s facial covering, such as the burka and niqab…. ‘If you look at the law, policemen do not have the right to take off the full veil by force,’ Adraoui says. “The only thing that they can do is to make them pay.’…Some activists are preparing to help veiled women avoid the fines by setting up a fund to pay for them.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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