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It's curtains for veils as France rolls out anti-niqab law Add to ...

A French law that comes into effect Monday bars Muslim women from covering their faces “in public space,” which includes streets, public transportation and government premises.

While the law makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public, authorities have taken pains to explain that France is not targeting Islam. But critics are not convinced. Under the new law, only the type of clothing worn by Muslim women is prohibited. Exceptions have been made for fencing masks, balaclavas and motorcycle helmets, among others face coverings.

Critics say the law violates freedom of religion, infringes on individual rights and stigmatizes Muslim women, but it appears to be massively popular in a country that is wrestling with high unemployment and has always struggled with multiculturalism. “It is a populist manoeuvre designed to please people who cannot tolerate religious symbols, especially Muslim religious symbols,” says Agnès De Féo, a sociologist who has interviewed about 50 women, mostly French, who wear the burqa or niqab. She predicts that “they will never take it off.”

Claude Guéant, the influential Interior Minister, has sent detailed instructions to police on how they should enforce the law. According to a March 31 letter posted on the website of the conservative daily Le Figaro, police can detain women who refuse to take off their face veils for up to four hours and fined as much as €150 ($206) or take a citizenship course – or both. Anyone who forces a woman to wear a facial veil can be sentenced to one year in jail and fined €30,000.

Police unions fear that the law will be virtually impossible to enforce, especially when women refuse to follow the police. Some predict that culprits may have to be handcuffed, which could increase tensions in already edgy suburbs of Paris such as Trappes and Mantes-la-Jolie that are home to many French Muslims. “It’s impossible for police to resolve this problem,” says Philippe Capon, secretary-general of UNSA Police, a leading union. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a priority. Our priority is to fight crime.”

The Constitutional Council has given the law its stamp of approval, arguing that “public order” rests on some “minimal requirements of life in society,” including exposing one’s face in public. It has cautioned however that the act should not infringe “excessively” on freedom of religion. In keeping with this, police are being asked to refrain from detaining anyone in the “immediate vicinity” of places of worship.

Some legal experts have argued that the new law is undemocratic. According to Anne-Marie Le Royer, a Sorbonne law professor, the state is defining acceptable social behaviour and imposing its conception of human dignity. She argues that this paves the way to the “moralization of public space,” subjected individuals to the same secularism that applies to the state. This, according to Professor Le Royer, could lead to a curtailment of individual freedoms. It is ironic, she notes, that – under the guise of gender equality – the law fails to admit that women can exercise an individual right to dress like they want. She predicts that the law will be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

“I firmly uphold the right for people to do stupid things,” says Negar Zoka, an Iranian-born French filmmaker who has strolled the streets of Paris for a TV documentary, Ce que le voile dévoile ( What the Veil Unveils). “I believe that individual freedoms are being rolled back,” she adds.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who speaks for mainstream Muslims and supports the law, says that “Islam, in the West, must adapt its faithful.” He and others, however, have cautioned that it should not be used to stigmatize Muslims.

The government believes the law is a setback for fundamentalism. Critics counter that extremists may benefit because those who are prosecuted will be portrayed as victims and attract sympathy. But Ms. De Féo, the sociologist, disputes the notion that women who hide behind burqas are by definition fundamentalists. Excerpts of interviews that she conducted with these women can be found online and their public statements suggest that they have strong personalities. About her attire, one woman notes: “It may be a prison, but I’ve never felt so free.”

Niqab-wearing tourists will be dealt with in the same manner as niqab-wearing French residents, according to Justice Minister spokesperson Bruno Badré. “The law does not allow for any exceptions,” he says. But it is unclear whether the law could have an impact on business. Wealthy veiled visitors from Gulf countries have been known to purchase diamonds on posh Place Vendôme.

Special to The Globe and Mail

HOW THE ANTI-VEIL LAW WORKS

- No one knows how many women wear face coverings in France, but officials put their number at about 2,000. They are found mostly in working-class suburbs of Paris and Marseille where immigrants live. Most are French citizens.

- No one knows either how many Muslims live in France, a country of 64 million. Interior Minister Claude Guéant earlier this month estimated their number at “between 5 million to 10 million.” The French census stopped asking questions about ethnicity and religion after the Second World War, when German-occupied France used such data to identify and arrest French and foreign Jews. About 75,000 were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany. French demographers are still debating the collection of ethnic data. Some have argued that social programs would benefit from information on immigrants and their children. Others believe that statistics about race and religion are unscientific and unreliable.

- Some Muslim feminists have welcomed the anti-burqa law, describing it as “a victory for women.” Sihem Habchi, the president of Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a left-leaning Muslim women’s group, has described the law as “a new dawn for the emancipation of women in working-class neighbourhoods.”

- Muslim schoolgirls and female teachers are already prohibited from wearing the hijab, an Islamic scarf, in school under a law banning all “ostentatious religious symbols,” including Sikh turbans and kippas. The National Education Ministry has recently also barred mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying students on school outings, arguing that secularism extends beyond school premises.

Michel Arsenault

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