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January 29, 2010

France Continues Debate on Banning Face Veils in Public

by Lisa Bryant

A French parliamentary commission submitted a report Tuesday on wearing a type of Islamic veil that covers the face.  The commission's findings cap months of debate over whether to ban the face veil in France - home to Europe's largest Muslim community.

Oloria, 20,  has been wearing the niqab, or face-covering veil, for the past three years.  She says she adopted it as a personal choice. Oloria says she feels closer to her Muslim religion and more comfortable in public, because she believes it hides her from the eyes of men.  She says her parents, who hail from The Gambia, initially opposed her decision.  But now they accept it.

But Oloria may soon be forced to take off her face veil in public.  A growing number of politicians want to ban the Muslim garment from the streets of France.

Only a small percentage of Muslim women here wear the face veil.  But their presence has nonetheless triggered one of France's hottest debates in recent years.  It was kicked off last June by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced in a major speech that the face veil, which he called a burqa, was against French values and not welcome in France.

Critics argue it is a symbol of female servitude and against women's rights.  They also argue the veil presents a security risk, since it hides the wearer's face.

Earlier this month Jean-Francois Cope, parliamentary floor leader of Mr. Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, introduced draft legislation to ban the face-veil.

Speaking on French radio, Cope said a veil ban did not aim to sanction a particular population.  He also noted that Islamic authorities say a face veil is not a religious obligation.

On Tuesday, a parliamentary commission presented a report on the face veil, after months of studying the issue.  Already, the commission's president, Communist lawmaker Andre Gerand, says he supports a law and that many commission members do too.  If passed, such legislation is expected not just to single out the veil, but generally ban any article covering the face in public.

Polls show the majority of French back a face-veil ban.  But the matter is far from settled.  President Sarkozy wants parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution, rather than a law.  Other lawmakers, including those from the leading opposition Socialist party, are against any measure.

More broadly, many critics are asking why the debate is taking place at all, since it affects such a small number of women.  Some argue it is diverting discussion from more serious problems, like the economy.  Others claim it represents a bid by Mr. Sarkozy's conservative UMP party to lure far-right voters for regional elections in March.

What is clear, says Claire de Gallembert, an expert on Islam at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) is that the debate is alienating France's five-million-member Muslim community.

"It is meant also to send a message to Muslims in France, to say you are not ready to adapt yourselves to Republican values, but the Republic is strong and is going to force you to adopt such values," she said.  "And the problem is, most Muslims do not feel concerned by the burqa."

Noura Jaballah, head of the European Forum of Muslim Women, a conservative umbrella group, argues the debate unfairly stigmatizes Muslims.  Jaballah wears a headscarf, but is against a face-covering veil.

Jaballah warns that banning the face veil may have a perverse effect.  Instead of pushing women to abandon it, those who wear the veil may simply stay at home.

This is not the first time the Muslim veil has sparked controversy in France.  In 2004, the French government adopted a law banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to schools.  Islamic expert de Gallembert says the legislation has had mixed results.

"We do not have scarves anymore at state schools, but the girls are putting on their scarves again when they go outside of schools," she said.

In fact, de Gallembert estimates the number of Muslim women wearing headscarves in France has grown since 2004, although there are no firm statistics to back this up.

Oloria says she is not sure what she will do if a law is passed.  She says it would be very difficult to remove her veil.

Conservative lawmakers say they want to wait until March elections are over before deciding on legislation.  They claim they do not want to politicize the face veil, but most French agree this has already been done.