France, French Identity and the Burqa: Gerin Report Due in January
As news comes that France will follow Britain’s lead in launching a ‘national identity’ project, I am reminded to check in on the country’s latest foray into the regulation of Muslim women’s dress: the National Assembly’s Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile integral sur le territoire nationale. The mission was created on June 23rd at the instance of André Gerin – with the support of a number of right wing deputies – and met in July, September and October of this year. The hearings will finish in December and the final conclusions should be available in January. Transcripts of the sessions of the mission so far are available here and videos of the sessions are here. The transcripts of the mission’s hearings – which include testimony from hospital professionals, mosque representatives, feminist groups, mayors, philosophers, anthropologists, historians and others – certainly make for interesting reading. The main points are summarised after the jump.
I want to highlight four points. First, the role of those who have been placed in the position of representing the ‘Muslim’ point of view is especially interesting. The French Muslim representative body CFCM (Conseil français du culte musulman) in their testimony to the mission on October 14 seemed keen to distance the ‘mainstream’ or ‘moderate’ French Muslim agenda – the repeated insistence that the burqa is not mandated by the Koran is important here- from that of those who would wish to wear the burqa or niqab; however, some members of the Gerin mission seemed to expect that CFCM would bear the responsibility of outright condemning practices deemed unacceptable to the majority.
Second, the construction of the practice of wearing the burqa as a refusal of French values and as a mark of resistance to ‘living together’ is gaining weight. The testimony of the philosopher Elizabeth Badinter was especially arresting in this regard. She described the act of wearing the burqa as contrary to the French value of fraternité because it represents a refusal to enter into contact with others on a reciprocal basis. A woman who wears the burqa, according to Badinter, reserves the right to see others but denies others the right to see her, and seeks to avoid ‘impure’ gazes while at the same time making an exhibition of herself.
Third, there is some disagreement among the experts who have appeared before the commission about whether a law banning the burqa would be appropriate or workable. Dalil Boubakeur, Rector of the Grande mosquée de Paris has argued that ‘dialogue’ and ‘pragmatism’, represent a sounder approach to the issue of the burqa than an outright statutory ban, while the sociologist Jean Bauberot has argued for ‘tolerance’ as the middle ground between permission and prohibition. The CFCM has similarly stated that the stigmatising effect of legislation would outweigh its benefits and have argued that education is the key to addressing these (minority) practices in the area of religious dress. By contrast, the sociologist Leïla Barbès has argued that the law could be used to support those women who are resisting pressure to wear the burqa. However, the practical difficulties in defining such a law appropriately should not be underestimated.
Finally, the issue of gender is playing out in a very interesting fashion. The organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises have been vocal here, describing the burqa as creating a ‘sexual apartheid’. A new motif was introduced when the mission’s hearings were held in Lyon. Testimony was heard on what was represented as the real, if marginal, issue of Muslim women who had given birth in French hospitals while fully veiled because a female member of staff was not available to attend them.
The Ministry of the Interior estimates that only about 2,000 women in France wear the burqa. Yet, religious dress is something of a ‘hot button’ issue in France, where religious symbols have been banned in state classrooms since 2004; a move which has visibly affected Muslim girls who wish to wear the hijab. Last year the Conseil d’Etat approved a decision denying citizenship to Faiza Mabchour, in part because her decision to wear the burkha was evidence of her failure to adapt to the purported French conception of gender equality. In June, in a speech to the National Assembly, President Sarkozy supported the establishment of the burqa mission and said that the burqa and the niqab were ‘not welcome’ in France:
“The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom… I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values. We must not be afraid of defending them”
M. Gerin has said that the mission will not necessarily decide whether or not to legislate for the burqa. Rather he says that, in the spirit of the Stasi Commission, the mission will produce a series of conclusions which will aim to illuminate the character of the act of wearing the niqab or burqa, with particular regard to the link between femininité and laïcité. M. Gerin envisages a French model of ‘living together’ which reduces (what he sees as) the influence of fundamentalists over women and the young, and encourages ‘un islam apaisé’, which is compatible with laïcité and with the principles of the Republic. The French MEP Vincent Peillon has said that the national identity debate, taken together with the burgeoning approach to the burqa, demonstrates that France is ‘sick’.