Behind the veil

On Monday President Nicolas Sarkozy told French lawmakers that he supports banning women's Islamic full-body veils like burqas and niqabs in public. Tuesday the Parliament voted to establish a commission to study whether women in France would be allowed to wear these garments.

Only a very small number of women in France wear this kind of clothing. In 2004, headscarves, skullcaps and large crosses were forbidden in public schools. Given recent efforts by some Western leaders to reach out to the Muslim communities, the timing of Sarkozy's comments and the parliamentary action is interesting.

Why take on this matter in such a public way? What are French leaders hoping to achieve? And how will this be perceived among Muslims inside and outside of France?

Some of the stories about the burqa flap address the religious issue -- and some act like it is mostly about culture, clothing and the sacred secular principles of La Republique Francaise. Posted on the cbc.ca website, this article does make a brief allusion to the fact that "religious symbols" have been controversial in France before, but includes no analysis of why.

The most useful story I've seen so far is one by Jamey Keaten of the Associated Press. This article, which admittedly has a fair amount of analysis, is good precisely because it gives readers the context in which this debate is taking place and a few reasons, both cultural and religious, on why women would wear a burqa at all.

President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Monday that the Islamic burqa is not welcome in France, branding the face-covering, body-length gown as a symbol of subservience that suppresses women's identities and turns them into "prisoners behind a screen."

But there was a mixed message in the tough words: an admission that the country's long-held principle of ethnic assimilation -- which insists that newcomers shed their traditions and adapt to French culture -- is failing because it doesn't give immigrants and their French-born children a fair chance.

Central to the debate over burqas is the idea that there are certain values that are secular, French and enforcable. One of these is, as Keaten notes, the assimliation of ethnic groups into a more homogeneous entity. Burqas have a religious significance that may be seen as a challenge to the supremacy of the state, as Keaton later points out:

Some Muslim leaders interpret the Quran to require that women wear a headscarf, niqab or burqa in the presence of a man who is not their husband or close relative.

France is home to Western Europe's largest population of Muslims, estimated at about 5 million. A small but growing group of French women wear burqas and niqabs, which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes.

Are more women really wearing this kind of body-covering clothing? Writing on his blog FaithWorld, Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan says that there are reasons to question whether the practice is widespread or not. Sarkozy heads a "centre-right" party, notes Heneghan -- would politicians on the left handle this problem differently if they were in charge?

There are so many angles to this story beyond the evident media ones about women's rights and whether focusing on burqas is really a way of stigmatizing Muslims. Are conservative Muslims a growing population in France? Are there any creative ways in which the government could moving to be helpful in assimilating immigrants? Heneghan has an interesting quote from Immigration Minister Eric Besson suggesting he would advocate an approach through dialogue rather than through laws. What do (and will) Muslim moderates say about this new Parliamentary inquiry? Can you combat the "fundamentalism" that some French legislators apparently fear through laws? There's a lot here that remains to be examined -- behind the veil.

The YouTube video out of India takes a distinctly negative but interesting perspective on this topic

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