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France's burka dilemma

A woman wearing a niqab protests at poposals to ban face veils in France
Proposals to ban face veils provoked debate in France's Muslim community

By Zubeida Malik
Today programme

France could become the first country in Europe to ban the burka. A draft law submitted to the French parliament would make it illegal for a woman to cover her face in public spaces such as hospitals and trains. But the proposal has divided the country's five million-strong Muslim community.

26 year-old Anisa wears a bright blue niqab, a piece of clothing that covers her completely except for her eyes and perfectly arched eyebrows.

You can't miss her among the crowds: maybe it is because of the colour of the niqab or because there is no other woman around who is covered up to this extent.

She has been wearing it for a year-and-a-half. Anisa's family, who are originally from Morocco, are against her wearing the niqab. But Anisa believes it is her religious duty.

According to official figures there are just 1900 women who wear the burka in France. Most of them are young and a quarter are converts.

But a report from the French intelligence services put this figure much lower at 367, out of an estimated population of five million Muslims, the largest in Europe.

The mosque in Drancy
The imam of the Drancy mosque has faced death threats

When I met Anisa in the suburbs of Seine-Saint Denis, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in France, she says that ever since she started wearing the niqab she has had unwelcome attention from the police, has been insulted in the street and is frequently stared at.

Women wearing the burka - a veil which covers the whole face - or the niqab in France are not as visible as those in Britain. But look hard enough in the suburbs and you can find them.

The mosque in the town of Drancy, on the outskirts of Paris, is currently the most controversial in France because the imam here has come out in support of the government's decision to ban the burka.

Imam Hassan Chalghoumi is now facing death threats and has been given police protection. Ignoring the advice of his advisors he spoke to the Today programme.

'Adapt to French life'

He says the burka has nothing to do with religion but the wearing of it was down to tradition.

And the imam added that the burka debate was diverting attention from the real problems facing the Muslim community, including racism, integration and young people dropping out of school early. The imam, who is originally from Tunisia, has the support of the mayor of Drancy.

Tempers are running high at the mosque and there are some it is hard to tell how many want the imam to leave. And there is also a lot of anger and frustration with the media and the police.

Catherine De Wenden
Catherine De Wenden believes the timing of the debate is political

Friday prayers when I was there were tense. There were policemen present, plain clothes officers filming and an ambulance on standby, in case anyone got hurt.

Multiculturalism in France is different to that in Britain and the United States. One of the core principles of the Fifth Republic is "laicite", the separation of church and state.

Religion here is seen as a highly private matter, even more than in the US, where church and state are also constitutionally separated.

Pierre Rousselin from Le Figaro newspaper says that in France people still believe that ''foreigners can adapt to the French way of life''

A commission has spent six months looking into the burka in a review which took evidence from more than 200 people. It recommended proposing a ban on women wearing either the burka or the niqab in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport.

It is not the first time that the Muslim community in France feels that its been put under the spotlight. In 2004 a law was passed banning the hijab - or headscarf - and all other religious symbols, from state schools. Although the ban affects all religions, the Muslim community here feels that it was aimed at them.

Wider debate

The current controversy comes in the wake of months of debate and President Sarkozy's speech last year where he said the veils were not welcome in France, but which stopped short of calling for an outright ban.

A draft law has been submitted to parliament but any further action has been put on the back-burner until after the regional elections in France this month.

Sihem Habchi, who describes herself as a Muslim feminist, is director of Ni Putes Ni Soumise - "Neither Whores Nor Submissives", an influential feminist organisation. She says it is not a question of how many women wear the burka, but one of ''democratic principle''. And she too wants the burka banned.

Sihem Habchi, director of Ni Putes Ni Soumise
Sihem Habchi says a ban would 'liberate' France's Muslim community

Ms Habchi says that a ban would ''liberate'' the Muslim community from those who want to hold it back and ''use our religion''.

Adding that her Algerian background allows her to understand this issue and the wider one of women's rights as a whole, Ms Habchi says ''laicite'' actually protects religion because it means all religions have an equal footing.

Catherine De Wenden, an expert in the history of immigration in France, believes the timing of the current debate is political and is tied in with the regional elections in France.

Although she is personally against banning the burka, she says there it is part of a wider debate in France about national identity, adding that there are many forms of multiculturalism and that France regards religion as a private matter.

Ms De Wenden is concerned that if the ban happens then France will not be seen as a country which practises toleration, a core value of the French Revolution.

But any legislation could have the reverse effect. The young women I spoke to in Drancy said that if the ban became law then they would start to wear the burka for the first time.




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