Niqab Ban Veils France’s Democratic Principles

In France, the push to ban la voile integral, a full-body veil with eye slits, in public leapt over another hurdle with the Sénat’s passage of a bill forbidding women from wearing the traditional garb. The Senate’s bill was preceded by the passage of the same measure in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parlement, this July. Some political observers argue that the timing of the controversial bill’s passage is a political ploy by President Nicolas Sarkozy to garner support for his unannounced re-election campaign.

With the presidential election only two years away, President Sarkozy’s re-election campaign is a fait accompli to disillusioned French voters even though he hasn’t yet made his official announcement.

Yet, incumbent Sarkozy’s re-election campaign will be an uphill battle. In a poll sponsored by Canal+ (a French television channel), 65 percent of polled respondents were against Sarkozy returning to the Palais d’ Élysée.

“He is running for president again,” says Joan Wallach Scott, a social science professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in New Jersey. “The UMP, his party, wants to hold onto as many seats in the Assembly [lower house] and the Senate [upper house].”

Currently, the UMP retains control over both houses, but the party experienced massive defeats during the past regional elections.

Burqa Ban

(Photo Courtesy of Beau Giles/flickr)

Some argue that the increase in Roma expulsions and the “burqa ban” are efforts by Sarkozy and his center-right party the UMP (L’Union pour un movemente populaire) to regain support among voters. But it might not do any good. When France’s economy felt the impact of the global recession, Sarkozy’s popularity began to freefall.

Recent polls suggest that the divisive expulsion of the Roma has resulted in an upswing in Sarkozy’s flagging reputation among voters. The results of a recent Paris Match poll showed a meager increase in favorable opinions of Sarkozy due to his emphasis on maintaining national security.

Scott says Sarkozy and other government leaders’ concentration on national security has an adverse effect on other pressing issues.

“For some politicians it has become more important than dealing with economic and social problems,” she says. She argues that Sarkozy is substituting concern about national security, national identity for issues of discrimination, poverty, and violence in the suburbs [banlieues] of France.”

While the bill banning the niqab cleared the Parlement, the Constitutional Council still must judge the bill’s constitutionality.

“There’s a real question about it because the freedom of religious conscience is one of the guarantees of the [French] Constitution,” Scott said, “And this law could be—and should be—interpreted as interfering with the freedom of religious conscience.”

Comments by French officials and political figures champion the bill as ensuring women’s right and liberating them from a patriarchal custom.

Sihem Habchi, leader of the feminist movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), told Agence France-Presse (AFP), “It’s a victory for women. It’s the beginning of a new era for the emancipation of women.”

The Minister of National Education Xavier Darcos echoed Habchi’s sentiments when he told digital channel I-télé, “It is out of the question that we see women covered head to toe in France; in any case, the Republic has not encouraged it … the burqa is a form of an oppression.”

However, the argument that the niqab is a “form of oppression” is not a universal opinion.

While freelancing in Yemen, Haily Sweetland Edwards, a freelance reporter based in the Caucus region, encountered all kinds of Yemeni woman.

Edwards met not only met traditional women donning niqabs but women rights’ activists dressed in Western attire while empowering women to recognize their right to choose to wear the controversial garment.

Yet many continued to wear the niqab in spite of its itchiness and the heat it retains on warm days. Edwards says they wore the niqab because some wanted to acknowledge their faith or uphold their family’s honor. Others said they could not imagine running errands in public without it.

“They laugh, they talk, they eat, they smile, and do what they would be uncomfortable to do without a niqab,” Edwards says.

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