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World The Burqa Debate Splits France

Discussion in 'Breaking News' started by Aman Singh, Jul 14, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent remarks that “the burqa, a sign of female subservience, will not be welcome on French territory,” caused uproar in India where religion is omnipresent and the wearing of personal religious symbols has never been questioned. It would be unthinkable for Indians to ban government servants or students from state schools and universities from publicly wearing burqas, turbans, religious robes, caste marks, crosses or yarmulkes.

    Leave alone Muslim clerics, even well-known Left wing feminists such as Zoya Hasan, who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was quoted as saying: “Though historically the burqa was a sign of subservience, in the present society everyone should have a choice to practice his or her religion and culture, which includes the dress pattern.”
    In 2004, France became the only country in Europe to outlaw any “ostentatious display” of religious symbols by public servants or students in state run-institutions. The law, which was essentially aimed at the Islamic headscarf, also made the Sikh turban illegal in public institutions. That was because the Stasi Commission, appointed to look into the various religious communities that people the French landscape, simply overlooked the country’s tiny Sikh community. Sikh students have had to remove their turbans or opt for private schooling. No turban-wearing Sikh can hope to find employment in a government office in France.

    With sizeable North African Arab and African Muslim communities, France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population — an estimated 4.5 million. Islam, not Judaism or Protestantism, is the country’s second most-practised religion after Catholicism. Last week, the French Parliament set up a special commission to look into the spread of full burqas and niqabs among Muslim women in France. The panel is expected to hand in its report by the end of the year with recommendations on whether further legislation is required. Asian Muslims in France are estimated at 1,00,000; mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. But there are several small Muslim communities from India including Dawoodi Bohras, Aga Khanis, Memons from Gujarat as well as Indian Muslims who migrated to France via Mauritius, Madagascar and the Caribbean.

    Obama’s remarks
    It all began with Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4th this year when the U.S. President called on Western countries “to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear”. Such action, he said, showed “hostility towards religion under pretence of liberalism.”

    Mr. Obama’s remarks, made in the heart of the Muslim world, raised the hackles of several French and European feminist groups who saw in his words a sop to Muslim mullahs, fathers and brothers who believe in perpetuating male domination by keeping women submissive and subservient.

    Two days after Mr. Obama made his remarks, he pointedly restated his position while in France on whether or not women should don the burqa. “Our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear,” he said.

    Mr. Sarkozy equally firmly agreed to disagree. “A young woman can wear a head scarf,” he said, “provided that’s a decision she has made freely, without it being forced on her by her family or entourage.”

    This exchange was no coincidence. France is one of the few countries in the world to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in state-run schools, universities and other institutions. It does so in the name of laïcité, or the principle of separation between the state and religion.

    Delivering a major policy speech to a joint session of Parliament and Senate in Versailles earlier this month, Mr. Sarkozy went several steps further. “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. … That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity. … The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. … It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

    The Maghreb or North African branch of Al-Qaeda immediately issued a threat to French life and property warning it would “defend the honour” of its sisters and daughters.

    The Muslim community in France has risen in protest against Mr. Sarkozy’s declarations. While there are feminists, including a few immigrant Muslims like Minister for Urban Policy Fadela Amara, who support Mr. Sarkozy, most Muslim women see this as a stigmatisation of their community. The burqa debate has split France down the line between those who feel more legislation is required and those who say strictures will damage France’s republican heritage. Muslim groups estimate there are perhaps only a few hundred women who cover themselves fully — often young French women, many of them converts.

    Towfik, a moderate Muslim from Algeria, told The Hindu: “They call the garment a burqa in Afghanistan. In Algeria we call it the mleya; in Iran it is the chador. Howsoever you call it, this garment which covers the woman’s entire body has a religious justification — it is a sign of reserve and can only honour its wearer even if the West finds it shocking. I find it is not appropriate to wear it in these societies. But to ban it is equally extremist.”
    Several French women who are recent convert to Islam after having married Muslim men wear it with enthusiasm. “When people in the street see me, a white woman with a burqa, consternation gives way to horror and to spiteful, rude remarks. I have reached a stage where going to the market has become an ordeal,” said Francoise, married to a Moroccan.
    “I hate the burqa for what it symbolises — the denial of women’s rights. However, I think legislating further is absurd. It will only single out one group and egg Muslim women on to wear the burqa if only to defy Sarkozy,” Janine Krause, a militant socialist, told The Hindu. “There is no point in shouting at Muslim women for their backwardness. We must work more to improve the standard of living and the integration of these populations which live on the fringes of society. The burqa becomes a badge of identity,” she said.

    Discriminated Against
    Overall, the Muslim community in France says it feels discriminated against. “Our names are a giveaway. We don’t find jobs. Sos Racism tested 1,800 CVs of Muslim and coloured jobseekers. Those with obviously Muslim names received immediate refusals. The same CVs sent with Christian-sounding names more often than not received interview calls.

    There is clearly a growing Muslim malaise in France. Mr. Sarkozy did not hesitate to quiz Indian leaders about whether there was a Muslim or a Christian “problem” in India in the wake of the Kandhamal riots and the bomb blasts in Delhi and Jaipur. Perhaps Dr. Manmohan Singh could take up the issue the rights of Indian Muslims in France when he visits Paris this week.
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