As probably many people know, last year the French Parliament passed a law that would ban full-face veils, because of “the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practices, even if it voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place”, a law which came into effect on 11 April 2011.
From the discussion of the ban online, I think there are several important points. The first is that it’s not, technically, a ban on the burqa’. The words Islam, Muslim and burqa’ do not appear in the law. But there are a series of exceptions mentioned in the law and in the debate surrounding the law which make it clear the Muslim dress is the primary concern of the legislators who wrote it.
This is also probably a good time to mention the difference between the burqa’, the hijab, and the niqab. Linguistically, there’s not much of one. The verbs baraqa’a and hajaba both mean to veil, although hajaba tends to imply veiling the face, and can also mean to mask, and naqaba means to separate or segregate (there’s some debate as to whether it’s called a niqab because it divides the individual from outside view, or if it’s a reference to the split in the face for the eyes). Generally speaking, a burqa’ is a full-body cover that also fully covers the face, the hijab is a headwrap that covers the hair but not the face, and the niqab is the a face veil with a slit for the eyes, covering most, but not all of the face. But this is by no means universally true, and there are styles of dress that seem like combinations of two or three.
The second point is that, as comedian and professional grump Charlie Brooker said on the British TV show 10 o’clock live last week, “certainly it affects very few women. According to French intelligence, about two thousand women wear the niqab and zero wear the full-face version, the burqa’. Yes, zero. You might as well have banned unicorn racing, you mad French f****s” (there’s a clip here, but I suspect it will only run in the UK). The French have banned something that doesn’t exist, and presuming they haven’t just been horrible misled and think that they’ve banned something else entirely, I don’t see how the law can be interpreted as anything else but a symbol and a statement.
So then, the question becomes – what statement are the French making? It’s fairly apparent that the law is intended as a statement about Islam. The French are fairly renowned for setting strict limits to what is and isn’t French – they have one of the toughest immigration tests around, and an Institute for the preservation of their language. From the way the law is described in the passage cited above, it appears to be making the statement that certain cultural elements of the practice of Islam are incompatible with French life – either you’re French or you wear the burqa’.
My problem with this statement, and the third point I think it’s important to stress is that the burqa’ doesn’t represent a more repressive form of Islam, as often seems to be claimed. The burqa’ is a particular kind of Islamic dress. The varieties of Islamic dress are linked to sectarian identity and region – as it happens, the burqa’ is common in Iran and Central Asia, and, at least anecdotally, I would say it is more common among Shi’a than Sunni (again, that’s anecdote – as most Iranian Muslims are Shi’a, there’s an obvious reason for why it’s the case if it is true).
As far as I know, there’s no claim in France that Iranian or Afghani Muslims would have a harder time integrating into French life than, say, Jordanian or Egyptian Muslims. Obviously there are communities of Muslims who already have a connection to France – Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Lebanon have all been heavily influenced by French culture. Banning full veils isn’t just making a statement about Islam, it’s making a statement about a particular kind of Islam, a particular sect and a particular regional cultural.
That doesn’t seem to be the point they’re trying to make. In all of the discussions about banning the burqa’ throughout Europe, the argument is that it’s a more oppressive form of Islamic dress, that a hijab might be acceptable but that a burqa’ is not, but it’s not nearly as simple as that. The wearing of both stems from the same Qur’anic and hadith citations, and the arguments in favour and against them should be the same, with the understanding that they’re just different cultural expressions of the same underlying principle.
 The quote is from CNN – if anyone can find me the original French, I’d appreciate it, cuz that’s a horribly wooden translation.
 My apologies for the language, but I said he’s a professional grump!