The French National Assembly, with the support of President Nicolas Sarkozy, recently formed a special commission on the niqab . Its first hearings will be held next week and continue throughout the month, with recommendations expected before the end of the year. Parliamentary hearings are not generally open to the public, but no decision has been made on whether the inquiry will be closed. Like the debate over the 2004 law that outlawed Muslim head scarves in French public schools, the question of the niqab broadly pits the ideal of a secular state against the equally treasured guarantees of freedom of religion and expression.
Burqa-wearing women have responded in a great deal of media. Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has said that he prefers a “middle-road” Islam, and that “We are not asking French society to accept the burqa.”
France is maintaining “very great vigilance” toward actions and statements by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or North Africa, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said in a briefing. The al-Qaeda affiliate threatened vengeance for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s criticism of the face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women. The Algeria-based group issued a statement on Islamic Web sites vowing to “seek vengeance against France” over Mr. Sarkozy’s comments about face-covering Muslim veils such as the burqa and niqab. The declaration could not be independently verified. “We will not tolerate such provocations and injustices, and we will take our revenge from France,” said the statement, signed by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, calling himself “commander of al Qaeda in North Africa [Islamic Maghreb].”
The statement is dated to June 28, five days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy controversially told lawmakers that the traditional Muslim garment was “not welcome” in France. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was originally a militant Islamist movement against Algeria’s secular government in the early 90s. It has since spread its geographic and political influence.
Vénissieux, a city of 60, 000 in the outskirts of Lyon, has witnessed an important increase in the number of women wearing burqas and niqabs, according to this article by Le Figaro daily newspaper. Locals estimate there may be 100 burqa-wearing women in the small city, which is also home to communist-party mayor André Gérin, who initially launched the possibility of a nation-wide commission to consider the practice and its legality in France. Gérin claims that more than half the population are foreigners, most of whom have migrated from North African and are Muslim. The now famous “Marche des Beurs” departed from the city in 1983.
A coalition has come together in the National Assembly of members who wish to consider women who wear the burqa and the niqab in the French territory. 58 deputies (43 from President Sarkozy´s Union for a Popular Movement or UMP) from different parties signed a proposition put forward by André Gerin (Rhône) to create a new government commission to consider the implications of the practice in France. Gerin claims that the practice is increasingly common. The suggestion has created much debate. Government spokesperson Luc Chatel told the media that, “If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles [. . .] parliament would have to draw the necessary conclusions.” There are currently no figures which indicate the actual number of women who wear the burqa or the niqab in France. The author of Musulmans de France (Éditions Robert Laffront, 2007) estimates there to be between 30,000-50,000 Salafists in the Republic.
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the CFCM (French Council of the Muslim Faith) told reporters, “We are shocked by the idea parliament should be put to work on such a marginal issue.” Fadela Amara, however, pushed for action, claiming alarm for the number of women “who are being put in this kind of tomb”. Sihem Habchi, president of NPNS (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) echoed Amara, noting the group´s support of such a commission. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris, also supports the idea of a new inquiry, saying that face covering of women is a fundamentalist practice not prescribed by Islam. Should the remainder of the house agree to the commission, it would draft a report to be released no later than November 30, 2009.
In two recent legal decisions, head-to-toe burqas have been banned from state-sponsored French language classes. Louis Schweitzer, the head of France’s anti-discrimination agency told La Croix daily that “Religious freedom is not absolute” and they authorities have sought “the most reasonable compromise.” His agency known as Halde ruled last month to ban burqa and niqab from state-sponsored French language classes for immigrants. Halde called the burqa a symbol of “female submission that goes beyond its religious meaning.” Under French law, these classes may be required for application for residency or citizenship in the country.
Earlier in the year, a national agency responsible for such classes complained that the presence of burqa-wearing women “hinders the proper functioning” of such classes.
Limits on the headscarf are not uniform. On October 8 An appeals court fined the owner of a bed and breakfast in the northeastern city of Nancy $6,000 for refusing to welcome two veiled women.
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