France's false 'battle of the veil'

My interviews with niqab-wearing women challenge many of the myths relating to the controversy over banning the veil in France

When the French debate on the full-face veil was launched in April 2009 by Communist MP André Gérin and later championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the political stunt appeared too obvious to swallow. A government only too happy for some breathing space as it struggled to overturn its widespread unpopularity. And yet, as the testimonies of 32 niqab-wearing women I interviewed for an Open Society Foundation study reveal, many French people fell head first for the diversionary strategy and overnight came to believe that it was their right, even their republican duty, to behave as members of a secularist enforcement squad.

Despite lukewarm protests against the ban, no genuine resistance was offered by French opposition parties. And the resounding silence of civil liberties groups and anti-discrimination advocates on the day of the law's enforcement was hardly a surprise. The "battle of the veil", the French version of America's "clash of civilisations", steadily saw the forging of a broad consensus that depicted many innocuous forms of Arab/Muslim cultural and religious expression as serious threats to national harmony.

Nothing illustrates this better than the recent parliamentary bill introduced by 32 MPs demanding that anyone wanting to fly foreign flags in public places must first seek permission from local authorities. The authors of the bill assert that displaying the flag from one's "country of origin" during demonstrations or celebrations often conveys a "provocative attitude towards our republican values".

Unveiling the Truth illustrates the rupture between the hysterical national discourse on the women who wear the full-face veil and their own concrete realities. The testimonies of the 32 women interviewed in towns and cities across France challenged many of the myths relayed during the controversy. Rather than reflecting an attempt to subvert society, the adoption of the niqab was, in most cases, the result of a personal and extremely individualistic journey, a modern spiritual approach in an effort to transform the self.

Of course various other factors played a role in the women's decision to adopt the veil. But most of them were the first members of their family to adopt the veil, the majority had no niqab-wearing peers, their attendance at their mosque was minimal, and their affiliation to any Islamic bodies almost nonexistent.

But what the report also achieved, albeit unexpectedly, was to open a window on to the reaction of the wider Muslim and Arab populations in France towards the controversy and the veiled women themselves. "I find the Muslim community as manipulated as the rest of the French population," said Eliza, a 31-year-old niqab-wearing entrepreneur who, like several respondents, has decided to leave France.

Most representatives of Islamic institutions adopted a conciliatory tone, opposing the ban while criticising the practice of wearing the full-face veil, arguing either (and rightly) that the niqab was a minority practice or (wrongly) that it was not "part of the religion" at all. Without offering any hint of support for the women, they allowed their discourse to be instrumentalised by the French ruling elite.

While their inconvenient opposition to the ban was generally sidelined, their assertion that the full-face veil was not a Qur'anic prescription became a national mantra relayed ad nauseam by secular politicians, delighted to spread the word.

The dismay and even the deep anger many niqab-wearing women felt over the lack of solidarity shown by fellow Muslims was a recurrent theme that arose in most of the testimonies. "The community hurts us more than the others," confided Aisha, a 19-year-old former national sports champion. Adding insult to injury, a significant number of the women interviewed had also been abused by either Muslims or people of Arab descent, sometimes venomously. Hurtful accusations that they were making the lives of Muslims harder in France, "shaming" the entire community, and "dirtying the religion" said much about the accusers.

The lethargy that gripped a significant section of the Muslim and/or Arab communities can be partially explained by its unsurprising internalisation of a largely unchallenged paradigm that for decades has depicted French religious and ethnic minorities as responsible for some of the country's main ills. It's an inferiority complex that, according to many testimonies, seems to have left the younger generations relatively unscathed.

"I receive more support from the youth who were born in France, who religiously are not necessarily very practising, but who recognise what racism is, than from the elders," said Eliza.

This might explain why in a sample of 32 women, 10 young women decided to adopt the full-face veil, some clearly in an act of defiance, after the launch of the debate. Bushra, a 24-year-old former rapper who did not even wear a hijab in April 2009, explained: "The controversy put a flea in my ear ... Already, for Eid, they don't allow us to slaughter our sheep, they don't let us go to school with our headscarves, they don't let us do anything!" Giving them a taste of their own medicine, she adopted the veil. She adds, with a laugh: "Thanks to their nonsense, I stopped mine."

guardian.co.uk

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