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Behind France's Islamic veil

8 April 10 00:25 GMT

France is one of several European countries considering a ban on the Islamic veil, and some restrictions on the niqab could become law within weeks. Claire Bolderson reports on how the debate plays into a broader struggle over French identity.

In a small park at the back of a housing estate in Avignon, Kenza Drider, 31, races around a scruffy tennis court giggling and shouting encouragement to her opponent as she swings her racket at the ball.

It is just a knock-about game and would be unremarkable, except that Kenza Drider is a very unusual sight.

Her plain blue dress reaches to the ground. On top of it, covering her hair and shoulders, is a voluminous, long grey shawl.

And, most striking of all, over her face she wears a piece of black cloth - a niqab - that conceals everything except her deep brown eyes.

Mrs Drider, born in France to Moroccan immigrant parents, is one of the few Muslim women in France who wear the niqab. The official count puts the number at no more than 2,000 in a Muslim population of well over five million.

But over the past year, they have become the focus of an intense debate about Muslim integration and what it means to be French.

A parliamentary commission has recommended that all face coverings be banned when people are using public services like welfare offices, hospitals and transport, though not in the street.

And although the government has been advised that a full ban might not be legal, it is planning to go ahead with legislation that would impose restrictions on the niqab within weeks.

'Portable coffin'

"Why should we find ourselves returning to medieval traditions?" asks Andre Gerin, the Communist member of parliament who chaired the parliamentary commission.

"To me, the full veil, the covered face, it's a woman in a portable coffin."

It was Mr Gerin who first started speaking openly about banning the veil when, as mayor of a suburb of Lyon, he says he noticed more and more women wearing it.

And he is convinced they are doing it at the behest of what he calls fundamentalists.

"These women are controlled," the MP says.

Kenza Drider scoffs at any such notion.

Relaxing on a bench in the park in Avignon, the mother of four young children explains how she bought her niqab nearly 11 years ago and did not tell her husband until she put it on to go out shopping with him one day.

"He knew very well it wasn't up to him whether I went out like that," she says, recalling that he merely said "OK, let's go", and she has worn the niqab ever since.

And she says that for women who wear the niqab in France, the majority of them French-born and many of them converts to Islam, "it's a personal decision, it's their freedom" to do as they wish.

Secular tradition

But the arguments against the niqab are not just based on feminism and the status of women.

The niqab, says leading feminist philosopher Elizabeth Badinter "is totally contrary to the three principles of the French Republic".

Those principles - liberty, equality, fraternity - can be seen written or carved on the front of every French town hall.

By hiding your face, Mrs Badinter explains as she sips a small black coffee in her elegant apartment in Paris, you breach the principle of equality.

"She who hides her face is in a position superior to mine," she says. "She sees me but she refuses to reciprocate."

Then there is the strongly guarded idea of secularism in France, the absolute separation of religion and the state rooted in the 1789 revolution and enshrined in a century-old law.

"You can have whatever religion you wish," says Mrs Badinter, "but it stays in the private sphere."

The problem is that some French Muslims see that not only as a way of dismissing their religion but also of ignoring their presence in France.

'Freedom of conscience'

The city suburbs with high populations of Muslims of North African descent have unemployment rates far above the national average. Educational achievement is generally lower in those areas and poverty is a real problem.

For the foreigners who come to France, according to Kenza Drider, "it's not that they don't want to integrate, it's that the state doesn't want to integrate them - there's a big difference".

She, like many Muslims, accuses the government of failing to address the social and economic problems the newcomers face.

And she has a message for the members of parliament who want to stop her wearing her veil in certain public places. She will not comply.

"The MPs who talk about liberty, equality and fraternity don't really understand the French Republic," she says back at her apartment in Avignon where, with only family and other women present, she removes the niqab and sets about making dinner for her children.

"Liberty means freedom of conscience, of expression," she says. "Equality means not judging the foreigner and fraternity means the support of French people for a French citizen."

Her words are a sign of the growing challenge to the long established values and principles of France as more and more Muslims put down roots in the country. The niqab is only the visible indication of a struggle to define what it means to be French.

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