|Notre Dame de la Garde|
|Arab Market in Marseille|
|Garlic at the Arab Market|
|Vieux Port de Marseille. Photo by David Scott Allen|
|Vieux Port in Marseille|
I find all of this very interesting, as I observe it through my American eyes, and I thought that our readers would too. I will tell you what I know, as best I can glean from news sources and friends in France; but, I will leave it for you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions. And, I would love to hear your thoughts.
France is home for five to six million Muslims. They comprise nearly 10% of the nation’s population and have the widely-cited distinction of being Western Europe’s largest Muslim community. Islam is the second-largest religion in France, growing faster than the officially secular nation’s dominant and deeply rooted Catholicism. (Exact figures are unattainable because France’s secularism prohibits the collection of census data on religion or race.) Most of France’s Muslims come from…
Algeria and Morocco, former French colonies. The largest Muslim concentrations in France are in Paris and its environs (comprising about 50% of the nation’s total), and in the South of France in the area between Marseille and Nice, and in the northern industrial area of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing.
|Women with Burqas|
In all of France, fewer than 2,000 women are estimated to wear the burqa. Technically, the number is much lower because burqas are informally lumped together with the more commonly-worn niqab, even though they are clearly different garments. The burqa is a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face and eyes; it is not commonly worn outside of Afghanistan and extremely rare in France. The niqab is a full-face veil that typically leaves an opening for the eyes; this piece of clothing is the more frequently encountered than the other full-face covering in France, although the few women who do don the niqab mostly reside in the predominantly Muslim suburbs of Paris. Both of these, because they are full-face coverings, are included in the upcoming “burqa ban.”
It is important to note that the hijab, a much more frequently worn garment that covers the hair and neck but not the face—often cited as an example of a Muslim woman’s “modest dress”—is not included in the upcoming ban. Nor is the chador, which covers the body, but not the face.
What has come to be known as “the burqa ban” will, in effect, expand the 2004 law. It was overwhelmingly passed in both houses of the French Parliament: in July 2010, it breezed through the National Assembly, the lower house, by a vote of 335 to 1 and, in September 2010, it flew through the Senate, the upper house, by a vote of 246 to 1. (In the latter legislative body, most Socialist party members abstained although they reportedly oppose full-face coverings in public but did not want to address the issue in the legal arena.) To ensure that the law would be able to withstand any legal challenges, upon its passage in the Senate, the leaders of both houses requested that the nation’s Constitutional Court review the constitutionality of the law. A month later, in October, the courts determined it to be constitutional (although the law may still be subject to a challenge by the European Court of Human Rights).
According to a CNN World report, “The French Constitutional Council said the law did not impose disproportionate punishments or prevent the free exercise of religion in a place of worship, finding therefore that ‘the law conforms to the Constitution’.” With that ruling, a six-month period was put into place before the law would go into effect in order to inform people of the specifics and penalties for violation of the law. On April 11, six months will have passed, at which time the law will go into effect. (Interestingly, all the people we interviewed were unaware of this implementation date.)
The law, itself, forbids people—French citizens, residents, and visitors, alike—from concealing their faces in public places. Words such as “Islam,” “Muslim,” “women,” and “veil” are noticeably absent in any part of the written law. Exempt from the ban are people who must conceal their faces for work-related reasons (such as those in law-enforcement and other high-risk environments) and those who participate in certain sports (such as fencing). Among the items not included in the ban are motorcycle helmets, ski masks, and carnival masks.
In essence, when the law goes into effect on April 11th, it will be illegal for a woman wearing a full-face veil to step outside her home. Except for private homes, religious settings, and private vehicles (as a passenger or, if her vision is not impaired, as a driver), women will be banned from wearing burqas or niqabs anywhere else.
In anticipation of the new law, this week, French authorities began distributing posters and leaflets that display the slogan, “The Republic lives with its face uncovered” and present the specifics of the law. A website is also said to be in the works, with the URL is www.visage-decourvert.gouv.fr, roughly translated as “uncovered face.government of France. (I have yet to be able to find the site.)
This is what I can piece together about the procedure in the event that a veil-clad woman ventures out in public. Police, who are apparently reluctant to enforce the law, are instructed to prioritize their actions in favor of the urgency of their cases. Managers of shops, restaurants, cinemas, etc. may turn a blind-eye to the veiled woman or ask her to either uncover or leave the public place. If the veil-clad woman refuses to uncover or to leave, the police may be called. The woman may be required to go to the police station, where her identity will be confirmed and a penalty imposed if she refuses to uncover. Ordinary citizens are not expected to patrol public places and are not allowed to force someone to remove her veil.
The penalties for wearing face-covering veils will be stiff: as much as €150 as well as required attendance in courses on “republican values.” Fines of up to €30,000 and one year in prison may be imposed on those who are convicted of forcing a woman—such as one’s wife, daughter or sister—to wear a veil. Forcing a minor to veil herself can lead to a doubling of both the fine and time in prison.
|Poster supporting the ban on minaret construction in Switzerland|
A majority of people in several other European countries— Belgium, Britain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland—reportedly support such a ban and, in fact, their governments are reportedly considering such bans. The majority of voters in Switzerland supported a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, the towers on mosques from which Koranic chants are broadcast to call worshipers to prayer. I found it interesting that, last July, Syria banned full-face veils in both public and private universities. In the United States, about two-thirds of those polled in the opposed the ban. Amnesty International is also opposed to the ban.
|President Nicolas Sarkozy|
The majority of the French people remain devoutly Catholic (although the Church’s importance is waning); but, as Lyon resident and friend Jean-Paul (real name not used) said, “We are the granddaughter to the Church—Italy is the daughter—we are religious, but our allegiance is to our country.” The French government fiercely protects religious freedom by actively discouraging conspicuous public expression by state authorities (e.g., taking the oath of office with one’s hand on the Bible) and frowning on overt religious expressions by individuals. After the Swiss vote on minaret construction, The Economist wrote that President Sarkozy advised people of all religious faiths to use “humble discretion” while practicing their religion. This approach is contrary to the United States of America’s tolerance—even unofficial popular encouragement—of religious expression by public figures and individuals to achieve the same goal of religious freedom. One may be able to poke holes in the logic of the burqa ban as a mechanism to protect religious freedom, but I feel there is definitely merit to this position. Others, especially Americans, may not agree because of deeply ingrained feelings based on our First Amendment.
Frustrations aside, Richard, like other non-Muslim French I spoke with, was ambivalent, even nonchalant about the upcoming law. “It is based on laïcité—everyone must follow the laws of the country in which they live.”
“Banning the burqa,” for other French people with whom I spoke, is a symbolic gesture that says something akin to, “Like my country or leave it…or, better yet, don’t come at all.” The ban may affect only a tiny proportion of French citizens and an infinitesimal proportion of visitors, but it affects those individuals deeply. The message will be broadcast far beyond the borders of France.
I am not surprised that the burqa has turned out to be the symbolic gauntlet. Symbolic or not, the burqa elicits a powerful and visceral response in many people, both its wearers and those to whom it is unfamiliar. I reluctantly confess that I still remember my first personal encounter with someone wearing a burqa. It was maybe eight years ago, in the coat department of Saks in Boston. I rounded the end of an aisle and nearly ran into a woman who was completely engulfed in opaque black garb, save a 2 x 4 inch rectangle of tightly woven black mesh that hid her eyes. I excused myself, but there was no response from this person: she didn’t speak and, of course, I could not see her face or her eyes. I didn’t know where to look. I had no way of knowing whether the person was angry or forgiving. I found myself thinking of this individual as more creature-like than person-like and realized that I was experiencing a growing panic that was not relieved until the person walked away. I then observed the veiled person make a purchase and could see that the clerk, however pleasant and professional she presented herself, was very nervous. When my turn came around, the young clerk unleashed her feelings of extreme discomfort about her previous interaction.
|AP Photo/Claude Paris|
Meanwhile, as we ponder the effects of the burqa ban, work continues on the Grand Mosque in Marseille. The complex, scheduled for completion by 2013, will be 8593 square meters (92,500 square feet) and, in addition to the prayer room, will house a Koranic school, library, restaurant, and tea salon. The minaret will rise 25 meters (82 feet) high. President Sarkozy and the Mayor of Marseille, Jean-Claude Gaudin, are among many French people who hope that the large mosque complex will offer Muslims another path to mainstream France, one they hope won’t include burqas. Mohamed Moussaoui, President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith also seems to be excited about this integration.
The enthusiasm of the Muslim community is palpable and has undoubtedly contributed to the successful navigation of erstwhile obstacles. The mosque’s location: Muslims were not troubled by the location, on the northern most part of the city, a long distance from the historic Old Port (where the Arab market is). The site: the fact that the mosque will replace an old dilapidated slaughter house—of pigs!—that later served as a hang out for drug addicts raised some eyebrows but few objections. The cost: Muslim leaders do not seem deterred by the knowledge that much more money must be raised to meet the €22 million its construction will require. The call to prayer: worshipers do not seem bothered that, in deference to the ethnically diverse neighborhood, there will be no traditional call to prayer from the minaret—no muezzin—typically heard blocks away, five times a day. Instead, there will be a purple light that flashes to call the faithful.
With only four true mosques in the city, Marseille’s Muslims have patiently waited for the Grand Mosque and, when the purple light finally flashes, they will hail from tiny stores, small restaurants, converted garages, and renovated basements that have all bulged at the seams as makeshift places of worship for over 60 years.
Come April 11th, my thoughts will be with all French people as they grapple with the implementation of this law and all the issues that surround it. I will be watching Marseille with particular interest and great hope.