Someya, 22, who declined to give her last name, is among a small number of women in France who wear the full niqab. She wears it “for God and for my husband, so that he’ll be the only person who can see me and be able to appreciate my face,” she says. But she’ll take it off because of France’s new law, she says.
A law banning the face-covering Muslim veil takes effect Monday in France, where the garments are called burqa or niqab. President Nicolas Sarkozy says the veils are an assault on French values of secularism and equality of the sexes, and now they can no longer be worn in public. Critics say the French president is trying to attract right-wing voters by focusing on Muslims.
On a recent warm spring afternoon, at a mosque in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, the faithful gather for Friday prayers. The imam told the men to scoot closer. ”You know, there is an Islamophobic climate here right now, and the police don’t like to see us praying in the streets,” he says.
Outside the makeshift mosque, housed in an old office building, men kneel on carpets. Rachid Zaieri says for the most part it’s fine being a Muslim in France — though he says there has been a rise in political talk against Islam in the past few years, and this burqa ban is a part of that.
“We don’t feel this law is sincere,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re for the burqa. But we think the law is just an excuse to tell French people, ‘Watch out, there is a growing Muslim population that you should be afraid of.”
Many Muslims here blame Sarkozy for what they say is an anti-Muslim climate in France today. They say the president creates debates around Islam so that people will forget about real problems, like the economy.
In the women’s section of the mosque, everyone wears loose- and long-fitting clothing and headscarves. But only a scarce few wear the niqab, a full face-covering veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes. Even by the French government’s own estimates, fewer than 2,000 women across the country wear the niqab.
Sarah Morvan, an 18-year-old Muslim convert who also wears the niqab, has just pulled on her long black gloves and stepped out onto the street. Not a bit of skin is showing. Morvan says the new law will only force her to stay at home more often with her 3-month-old daughter, whom she pushes in a stroller in the afternoon sun.
It’s a very emotional experience to wear the niqab, says Morvan, who embraced wearing it two years ago. You are sheltered from all onlookers and completely cut off from society, she says. That is exactly why the French government is banning it. Sarkozy says the niqab and burqa isolate women and take away their humanity. The French immigration minister called the burqa a “walking coffin.”
So starting Monday, police will ask women to uncover their faces and show their IDs. If they refuse, they could be fined up to $200 and forced to attend a civics class. The punishment is stiffer for any man caught forcing a woman to cover her face. They’re subject to a fine of up to $40,000 and possible jail time.
Aubervilliers is 70 percent Muslim. Many, like cafe owner Kamel Mesbah, say they understand the intent of the law, to weaken what he calls the burqa culture. You can’t have things like men and women refusing to shake each other’s hands, and separate hours for boys and girls at the public swimming pool, he says. That’s just not France.
“France’s new ban on Islamic face veils was met with a burst of defiance Monday,” The Associated Press reports from Paris, “as several women appeared veiled in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and two were detained for taking part in an unauthorized protest.”
But as the BBC writes, “the French government says the face-covering veil undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society and also relegates its wearers to an inferior status incompatible with French notions of equality.”
by Eleanor Beardsley for NPR
From expelling hundreds of Roma this summer to passing an immigration bill that critics call “harsh and discriminatory,” France has been working out its conflicting attitudes toward immigrants on a very public stage. NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley, an American living in Paris, recently had her own brush with French immigration authorities and sent us this essay.
It’s not often that you get to experience the world you’ve been reporting on from the inside. But during these days of crackdowns and deportations, I had some of my own immigration problems. For reasons that I won’t bother going into, my visa expired, and I became illegal.
Because of the lapse, I had to start over again in applying for my permit to live in France. And that’s how I found myself, one sunny October afternoon, in a room full of foreigners at the Paris prefecture of police.
I looked around the room at the sampling of people from across the globe. A young Russian mother shushed her sassy toddler. A couple from Southeast Asia hugged a cooing baby. To get this far, we had all provided a slew of paperwork — including birth certificates, school diplomas, job contracts and apartment leases.
After a cheery welcome, we were shown a film about French life, full of happy citizens and beauty shots of the French countryside. We learned the principals of liberty, egality, fraternity and secularism. One scene showed women working. “In France, women don’t need permission from husbands, fathers or brothers to work — or do anything else,” the narrator reminded us.
While waiting my turn for a medical exam, I thumbed through brochures on the illegality of forced marriage and female circumcision.
Many of the personnel who processed us were immigrants themselves. I was led into a small office where a cheerful-faced woman held my file in her hand. “We’re the same age,” she told me. Looking at my birth certificate, she asked if Madison, Wis., was the Madison from The Bridges of Madison County.
We were soon talking about how much we had both cried watching the movie. The immigration officer, whose name was Victoria, told me she had met a Frenchman in her native China 20 years ago. She, too, was raising children in an adopted land. Victoria said she was happy in France, but it was still very hard sometimes.
Despite the recent uproar over the treatment of Roma, France remains a beacon for immigrants and a nation built on immigration. France accepts the highest number of asylum-seekers after the U.S., and a quarter of French citizens have a foreign-born parent or grandparent, just like President Sarkozy.
Today, newcomers must learn French and are obliged to sign a contract swearing they’ll uphold the values of the French Republic. Immigrants can be required to take instruction in certain topics. For those whose language skills are lacking, the state pays for 280 hours of French classes — not a bad deal! The one course no one gets out of is a full day learning about French civics. Mine is in November, and this being France, a hot lunch is included.