France and Muslim Women’s Dress: Report Relased
UPDATES on Wednesday: Here are links to some of the best commentary on the Gerin Report from today’s papers: Raphael Liogier in the Guardian locates the partial ban within a broader crisis of French identity. The Financial Times calls the partial ban an example of ‘Republican bigotry‘ while the NYT claims that ‘the Taliban would applaud’ the French proposals. There is mention of a ‘pro-veil’ attack at a Paris mosque and discussion of splits within the Commission in the Times. The Independent also discusses the lack of French unity on the burqa question and the Christian Science Monitor discusses political strategising around Muslim women’s dress. An older article in the Independent argues that wearing the burqa in the 21st century is ‘preposterous’. The BBC asks ‘Should the UK ban the Muslim face veil?’.
The parliamentary committee set up in June to investigate the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in France released its report today. The report is available here (in French only). “The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable,” says the report. “We must condemn this excess”. Agnes Poirier has an interesting take on the negotiations which led to the report. Natasha Lehrer summarises the key findings for the Index on Censorship as follows:
As expected, the commission stopped short of recommending a blanket ban on the wearing of the burka, proposing instead a ban on covering the face in administrative buildings, schools, hospitals and public transport. “This measure would oblige people not only to show their faces at the entrance to all public buildings but also to keep their faces uncovered during the entire period in which they are in a public building.” The report goes on to emphasise that “the consequence of violating this injunction would not be criminal but would be sanctioned by the service being sought being refused.”
In addition the commission suggests that wearing the burka might also be banned in buildings used by members of the public — for example banks or post offices — where identity checks and CCTV are used for security purposes, for example to prevent robbery. For similar reasons of public safety, driving whilst wearing the burka might also be forbidden.
Refusing to serve someone who has chosen to cover her or his face in a building used for some sort of public administration does not pose any judicial problems, although it does beg some obvious questions as to how the French administration suggests fully veiled women be prevented from, for example, traveling on the metro, if it is not technically illegal to do so.
This approach appears to place the burden of policing the ‘values of the Republic’ and testing integration squarely on the shoulders of certain service-providers. As such, it seems to me that Lehrer is correct in saying that:
The commission’s conclusions are…. somewhat mealymouthed, which is, quite possibly, the point. If you can’t take public transport, go to the doctor or the bank, drive to pick your children up from school, buy stamps or even arguably go to the supermarket, what need for a blanket ban? Women who wear the burka, either through choice or because they are forced to by their families, will be faced with a choice — remove the burka or remove yourself almost entirely from the public arena.
Lehrer further explains that the report suggests certain changes in immigration practice:
The idea of refusing a Carte de Séjour, or working visa, to those who wear the burka is rejected by the report. However the commission does suggest reviewing the law on asylum so that a resident’s permit might be refused “to anyone who manifests the radical practice of a religion which is incompatible with the values of the République, in particular the principal of equality between men and women, since this would be considered a failure of integration”.
Opponents of this ‘partial ban’ warn that it may work against meaningful inegration. Anoushay Hussain, writing for NPR says:
[Sarkozy] can use the whole “it is a subjugation of women” language as much as he wants, but do we really think that Sarkozy is formulating policy to fight for the rights of Muslim women? If he was, he would factor in the issue of how many French Muslim women may not be allowed to go to schools, may be denied medical care, and have their mobility curbed in general because their (sexist) male guardians may not allow them out of the house without the burqa. We are seeing how women’s bodies being exploited for political purposes.
France 24 notes two further features of the report:
Educational programmes: The commission seeks to avoid stigmatising the 1,900 women in France who wear the veil, and by extension the wider Muslim community. The report recommends ongoing educational programmes aimed at reducing fundamentalism and promoting France’s republican values.Measures to reduce stigmatising the French Muslim community: Less discussed than the veil issue, the report also recommends measures aimed at the wider Muslim community, including the creation of a “national school of Islamic studies”, debates on the nature of Islamophobia, direct aid for the building of mosques and Islamic cultural centres, and the creation of new national holidays to celebrate religious festivals such as the Islamic Eid and Judaism’s Yom Kippur.