Critics argue proposed move would be violation of basic rights
Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan, walks in a Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, France, on Tuesday. Silmi was refused French citizenship for what authorities said was her failure to assimilate into French culture.
LA VERRIERE, France – The man she married is French, her four children were born in France and she speaks French with only a trace of her native Arabic tongue. Faiza Silmi contends her clothes – a head-to-toe robe and filmy tissue covering her face – are the reason France has denied her citizenship in her adopted land.
The 32-year-old Moroccan may soon be facing an even fiercer blow. A top French lawmaker submitted a draft law this week that would ban such Islamic dress anywhere in public, a measure that would set a European precedent and trap thousands of women between their religious convictions and the law of the land.
“They say I’m too attached to my religion,” Silmi told The Associated Press at an empty restaurant near her home southwest of Paris, her large eyes peering from a slit in her veil. “Lots of Christians live in Morocco and we don’t make them wear scarves.”
Unlike Muslim headscarves, full-body, face-covering robes are a rare sight in the streets of France, home to an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe. France’s main Muslim leaders have declared that Islam does not require women to cover their faces with niqabs or burqas.
In a country whose national emblem is Marianne, a bare-chested woman, there is deepening concern over the all-encompassing garb, often black or brown and worn with gloves, attire typical in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Here, it is widely viewed as a gateway to radical Islam, an attack on gender equality and other French values, and a gnawing away at the nation’s secular foundation.
President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the door to a possible ban in June, telling a parliament session in Versailles that such dress “is not welcome” in France. A parliamentary panel set to work in July on a six-month mission gathering information on the garments.
On Tuesday, the head of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party in parliament’s lower house, Jean-Francois Cope, jumped the gun before the panel’s report was finished, and filed draft legislation on a ban. “No one may, in spaces open to the public and on public streets, wear a garment or an accessory that has the effect of hiding the face,” the draft text reads.
The document cites public security concerns, thus includes all face-covering clothes, in a bid to head off challenges from those who might claim such a law would violate constitutional rules on individual rights – a major concern along with how such a law would be enforced. It foresees fines for those who break the law.
The initiative, unlikely to go to debate before spring, would be the second time France targets Muslim dress. A 2004 law born in acrimony bans Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols in the classrooms of French public schools. Sarkozy’s party dominates parliament and the president reiterated Wednesday his wish for a law on full veils, though it’s too early to say whether it will pass.
Europe’s growing Muslim population has bred tension across the continent. Wariness is pervasive since deadly attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 by Islamic radicals living in Europe. And some non-Muslims sense a threat by a foreign culture to their way of life. It took only four minarets on Switzerland’s 200 mosques to push the Swiss to vote “no” to minarets in a November referendum.
However, France, which wants an Islam tailored to the West, would be the only western European country to target the all-enveloping robes and niqabs, the cloth hiding the lower face. “We’re going to become the laughing stock of democracies” should France ban the clothing, said Raphael Liogier, a sociology professor who runs the Observatory of the Religious in Aix-en-Provence.
He is among critics who say a ban would be a violation of basic rights and “transgression of the fundamental principles of our republic.”