Face-Veil Ban Sparks French Riots

7282258116_1a4e13ffd1The debate on the ban of face veils in public places in France has intensified since July 18, when police in the Paris suburb of Trappes arrested a man in connection with authorities’ efforts to check the identity of his veiled wife, triggering at least two nights of youth rioting and confrontations with police.

The Versailles state prosecutor said the woman’s husband assaulted one of the officers and tried to strangle him and was immediately taken into custody at the police station. The husband denied the accusation and said the officers were violent toward his mother-in-law who was also present during the identity check.

The police asked his wife to remove her niqab—the veil covering most of a woman’s face—in order to identify her. She agreed to do so but not in front of bystanders, according to her husband, who gave an interview to a local television station.

In the wake of the unrest, French left-wing Sen. Esther Benbassa has called for an end to the law banning the face veil, which has led to the arrests of about 420 women since its passage in 2011, according to the Observatory of Laicité (Secularism), a Paris-based group working with the prime minister’s office. Most of the women who have been arrested are under the age of 30 and were born in France, reported Le Journal du Dimanche.

Tensions over the treatment of veiled women had been rising before the Trappes riots.

The Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France found in its annual report for 2012 that 84 percent of Islamophobic acts in France were against women and 77 percent of verbal and physical attacks were against veiled women. Each week in France, on average, two women are victims of an aggression because of their affiliation to religion, according to the report.

The Ministry of Interior estimates that the ban affects only between 400 and 2,000 women. “We have to reconsider the law . . . what’s a law for 400 women?” Benbassa said, according to French radio station RMC. “We cannot continue to restrict the freedom of people and expect a positive outcome.”

Boubacar Sene is the communications director for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. “We can indeed wonder what is the aim and point of a law that addresses about 400 women if it is not to stigmatize a religion and create confusion,” Sene told Women’s eNews in a phone interview. “The majority of Muslims in France live their religion in discretion and abide by the laws and the republic’s values.”

In addition to the face-veil ban, Muslim women wearing the hijab, which only covers the hair, are also currently banned from public schools and jobs in public sector.

At the end of the 1980s, the hijab first attracted major political notice when three female students were expelled from middle school for refusing to remove it to attend classes. Twenty years later, former President Jacques Chirac launched a group to study the preservation of secularism in France.

In 2004, a law banning the display of any prominent religious signs in public schools–except universities—was passed, which included the Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippahs and the prominent display of Christian crosses. In 2007, the law was broadened to include “minor” religious signs, such as bandanas that have been worn as alternatives to hijabs to circumvent the ban.

There have been some attempts to extend this ban to the private sector. In March, the French Court of Cassation voided the 2008 dismissal of a Muslim nurse from a private daycare center because she refused to stop wearing the hijab. Following the court’s decision, French president Francois Hollande suggested that a new law should be drafted over whether religious symbols such as headscarves could be worn by staff in private daycare centers and eventually extended to other areas of the private sector. The socialist president leans in favor of restraint on public veiling.

Islamophobic attacks in France increased 35 percent during the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2012, the Observatory of Islamophobia announced on July 23. Several veiled Muslim women were attacked on the streets in different parts of France over the last few months. In one of the latest incidents, a pregnant veiled woman was attacked in Argenteuil, in the suburb of Paris. She miscarried a few days later.

In April, a female Muslim student was expelled from school because she was wearing a headband hiding part of her hair and a long black skirt. The principal of the school considered her outfit a display of her faith.

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France also reports similar cases. Some female students have been barred from taking exams in certain schools and were recently prevented from entering some high schools to pick up their results on the baccalaureat. Said Donia Bouzar, a French anthropologist specializing in Islam,

France sees Islam as a religion that cannot adapt to French secularism [and] that cannot live with its time, where there is no equality between men and women. All these prejudices are reinforced by fundamentalist groups, which led to this climate of aggression.

But somehow the law became a stigmatization tool because of what has been said during the [public] debates [on the issue]. The commission that was in charge of drafting the bill became a place where Islam was put in trial …

Critics of Nicolas Sarkozy lay much of the blame for this stigmatization on the former French president, who campaigned for the 2011 law banning the niqab from public places and in 2009 launched a “National Identity Debate” in which he criticized the Muslim community for their lack of “integration.”

Piece excerpted from Women’s eNews. Read the full article here.

Photo courtesy of Baalel via Creative Commons 2.0.