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Veiled at the Top of the Totem Pole

I suppose you’ve seen the news about the debate in France about burqa-wearing by Muslim women in France? A burqa is an “enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body and last year, a top court denied a Moroccan woman’s naturalization request based on the fact that she wore a burqa.

Yesterday, a 200-page report by the French parliament was made public that proposes to ban the burqa from public schools, hospitals and transport systems…with officials as high as President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that it was “not welcome in France” and was a symbol of the “subservience of women” that was not in line with the French Republic’s core value of equality. There is also the argument that the full-body garments are a security issue in places like banks and subways where people need to be identifiable.

To all of you who write me regularly about France’s anti-semitic activities, look again, but this time put on your glasses. France isn’t wild about anyone who isn’t French or who don’t hold French values. So, as you see, the Muslims are at the top of that ‘totem pole.’

A few facts about Islam in France before you make any of your own judgments (

* Up to five million Muslims are thought to reside in France, according to Interior Ministry figures. An Ifop opinion poll from 2009 showed that most live in the areas around Paris and Lyon.

* Some 1,900 mosques and prayer sites operate in the country, with around 20 of them sporting minarets.

* Interior Minister Brice Hortfeux says an estimated 1,900 women wear a form of all-covering veil in France, either the burqa or niqab.

* Seven out of 10 Muslims say they fasted during Ramadan in 2007, according to an Ifop poll; this number was only six out of 10 in 1989. Almost four Muslims out of 10 say prayers every day and 23 percent go to the mosque on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

French voters supp

ort the ban, but it’s a serious debate among lawmakers. While they mostly agree with the ban, they don’t have any clear solution to how to go about enforcing it. And I question what consequences the ban will have on France with its 5 million Muslim residents who will surely not take it without resistance…and naturally with protest if not conflict.

Meanwhile, “a cross-party panel of 32 lawmakers will investigate whether the traditional Muslim garment poses a threat to the secular nature of the French constitution.” We’ll learn more of their recommendations in six months time, so the issue will continue for a while longer.

France is not alone in this, either. The Dutch voted for the ban in 2005, but that government was defeated before it could pass legislation. In Switzerland, a referendum was voted to ban the construction of minarets.

As a member of a minority living in France as a foreign resident, this debate can’t help but hit home. I can remember when in high school the teachers were threatened by counter-culture activities, such as wearing mini-skirts or Beatles-style long hair. I didn’t want anyone telling me what I could wear or not. Who were they to say what was right or wrong? And why did they feel so threatened by something so benign? None of this made sense to me as a teenager expressing a bit of independence.

Obviously, as a feminist, the wearing of a burqa seems horrific to the freedom of women, but that’s life from my point of view, not theirs. Shouldn’t we ask the women who wear them how they feel about all this? Or do the French simply think they have the right to outlaw a custom that is contrary to theirs, simply because it takes place on French soil? And then, where does that stop? Does this mean that if they had their way, Americans living in France would no longer be allowed to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Wow! Just the debate in my own head goes in circles, so just think what this debate will do to the French and the way they see all counter-cultures. Sometimes I think none of us are really welcome in France, although a clerk at the Préfecture once told me I held the “Golden Passport” — an American one — and that we got everything we wanted. But what about a burqa-wearing Muslim American? How golden is her passport now?

I know one thing. We foreigners who live in France do so because we choose to. The French don’t realize how much we love and admire them and their country and how we act as emissaries for the French and their beloved culture. If push came to shove, I’d wager a bet that the immigrants would stand up and risk their lives for France every bit as much as the French would!

So, where does it get us? Somewhere on the ‘totem pole.’

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
(Photo by Michael Honegger)

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