First witness in burqa commission in France calls for ban

Sihem Habchi appeared as the first witness before a newly created parliamentary group studying Islamic clothing such as burqas and niqabs in the Republic, part of France’s effort to integrate its growing Muslim population while preserving its heritage and secular roots.

The panel, chaired by Communist Party lawmaker André Gédron, will hold months of hearings before issuing a report, likely by January 2010. It has no power to draft laws but could recommend legislation restricting or banning women from wearing head-to-toe Islamic robes that mask facial features in public.

The panel was announced in June 2009. Habchi heads Ni Putes, Ni Soumises — Neither Whores, Nor Submissives — an outspoken group fighting to improve the lot of Muslim women and girls in suburban areas. The group’s founder Fadela Amara, now the government’s urban affairs minister, supports a ban on full-body veils. The parliamentary panel is also to hear from supporters of the veils, though the list of witnesses has not yet been completed, the panel said.