Guest post: A few words about France and the burqa

zohra asked if I could write about France’s project to launch a Parliamentary inquiry about the burqa from a French perspective. I write with two caveats: I am not a Muslim so I am wary not to take up space in the debate, and my position on the issue isn’t black or white: I supported the 2004 ban on all religious symbols in schools for example, but fail to see what good can come from a ban on burqas in the streets.

Most of the comments I’ve seen in the American blogosphere have annoyed me as they were UK-US centric, when they were not straight-up offensive. I’d like to see more contextualisation and nuance.

France’s social model, also known as laïcité, is not “better” or “worse” than those of the US or UK, just different (see this great explanation). It’s held dear by the vast majority of French people – no matter their religious affiliation. An inquiry on burqas wouldn’t last two seconds in the UK because the multicultural model here is more or less happy to accommodate a nation made of many identities who actively claim their differences. The French Republican model insists on considering all its citizens to be children of the state – ideally devoid of any individual characteristics or special treatment, all treated fairly and equally. Of course, both models fail more often than not as we still silence minorities and perpetuate racism, colonialist attitudes, sexism and so on.

But here’s a few key points to add to the debate:

  • Unlike in the UK, few French women wear the niqab and very few wear the burqa. This is partly because they are more likely to descend from Algerian, Morrocan and Tunisian families where the burqa is not often used. In addition, most French Muslim families who immigrated in the 60s and 70s were usually not strongly religious. From what I can gather, those who do wear the burqa do it by choice (and not coercion) as a radical political act. Still, serious data is missing. This is why an inquiry could be a good idea: a map of numbers and religious affiliations is needed.
  • Most French Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to the burqa, seeing it as an extremist symbol. Not enough is said about such Muslim secularists who oppose the burqa. For example the French Muslim-feminist group ‘Nor Whores Nor Submissives’, which made waves a few years back, fully endorses the government’s inquiry. It sees a direct link between the degradation of women’s rights in France’s underprivileged neighbourhoods and the growing number of political Muslim radicals who “take women’s bodies in hostage”. Another militant feminist-Muslim group, Les Insoumises, is more nuanced in its approach: it is clear that it detests the burqa, but worries about the implications of such a ban for women (‘Will they be forced to stay at home?’ seems to be the main question).
  • A lot of the debate will focus on practicalities: kindergarten teachers asking about the security issues involved in giving a toddler back to a parent whose face cannot be seen; questions about going to the Post Office to receive employment checks where identification is necessary; identity controls by the police; receiving medical treatment. Such practicalities are crucial and hard to legislate on.
  • If our government decides to legislate on the burqa, it would paradoxically automatically turn women who wear them into second-class citizens in the eyes of the state by treating a minority of women differently than any other citizen. In turn, the secular principle our constitution is built upon would be undermined. For that reason, I think the government should refrain from legislating at all.

But in the meantime, it would be very nice to not read a deluge of comments which only see the issue through an Anglo-centric prism – especially since launching an inquiry isn’t like putting a ban in place right away. On the contrary, it’s about launching a national debate involving the French public and elected politicians. And while I’m sure many politicians will use the platform to spout racist and sexist nonsense, I always think that debating women’s rights in the public space is better than keeping quiet.

This is a guest entry by Jessica Reed, who works for Comment is free. She’s French and English but more French than English.