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France stirs burka debate

Gavin Hewitt | 12:30 UK time, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Women wearing full Islamic veil in Marseille, FranceSo a French parliamentary commission has ruled that "the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to the Republic". The burka and niqab are "unacceptable", the report goes on, "and we condemn this excess".

However, the report is cautious in what it recommends. It foresees a ban on the burka in all schools, public transport and government offices. Women who wear the full veil could be denied services such as work visas or even French citizenship.

But the commission has steered away from a general ban including wearing it on the street. They were uncertain about the legality of such a ban.

There will now be intensive debate about this and a law may follow, but MPs are divided over what to do. Some favour tough legislation while others are not persuaded.

I also want to pick up on some of your comments about the burka and France. It is clearly a subject of immense interest. My intention is to highlight major European themes and "identity" is one of them. Some of the arguments heard in France have either already taken place in other European countries or are on the agenda.

My interview with Chrystelle Khedrouche, who wears the niqab, raised some interesting points.

Mrs Gendy wrote: "I wonder how many of the women who wear the niqab are French converts married to men from Muslim-dominated countries".

My understanding is that in France among the relatively few burka or niqab wearers a significant number are converts. The vast majority are under 40. Chrystelle says her decision to wear the niqab was hers alone and dictated by her faith.

Muslim writes: "Muslim women are commanded to cover their entire bodies in the presence of Afanib (men lawful for the women to marry)". There is wide dispute over this. Some imams in France back a ban. Hassen Chalgloumi, a Tunisian-born imam, says "full-face veils have no place in Islam" and goes on to describe the burka as "a prison for women". The French Council for Muslim Worship has supported the ban in instances where establishing identity is necessary.

Many contributors felt that the full-face veil should be banned in airports, law courts, schools and some public buildings. In the Netherlands it is banned in and around schools. However a case in Belgium reveals just how difficult it is to enforce a ban. A woman who was fined $190 simply refused to pay.

Another contributor pointed out how few Muslim women wore headscarves as recently as 10 years ago. One Muslim woman told me in Paris that the headscarf had become a way of asserting identity. She recognised that that became a problem if the identity was seen as separate from mainstream European society.


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