French Law Banning Face Veils Goes Into Effect

A controversial, new law banning the use of face veils in public places in France, goes into effect today. The law affects Muslim women who wear the niqab, a face veil that leaves a slot for the eyes or the burqa, a full-body garb which features a mesh cover for the face. Host Michel Martin speaks with reporter Elenor Beardsley about how the law will be enforced. Martin also discusses the debate within the French Muslim community, with French Muslim feminist Sihem Habchi, who supports the law and French journalist Nabila Ramdani, who has written extensively against it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

April is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, we will bring you the latest in our month-long series of tweet poems. That is just a bit later.

But first, a new law in France that bans the niqab and the burqa from public places is in force starting today. The niqab is a face veil that only leaves a slot for the eyes, and the burqa is a full-body covering, including a mesh cover for the face.

The law bans their use in public places, like streets, government buildings and entertainment venues. Here's French President Nicolas Sarkozy describing what he called the need for this new law.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: The problem with the burqa, he says, is not a religious one but a question of freedom and women's dignity. In a few minutes, we'll hear two very different views on the new law from two women, both Muslim.

Before that, though, we want to check in with Eleanor Beardsley, who's been covering this issue from the beginning. Eleanor Beardsley reports for NPR from Paris. And she's with us now on the line from her home office. Welcome back, Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Eleanor, tell us once again: Is this law specifically aimed at face covering for religious reasons? Like as you know, you know, sometimes people wear a mask because they have a cold. So if you wear a scarf over your face in the wind, this law only attaches to these specific Islamic face coverings?

BEARDSLEY: Right, well, except for if you wear medical bandages and if you wear a motorcycle helmet that cover your face, that's okay, too. I mean, obviously if you're wearing a scarf for the wind, you're not hiding yourself permanently, you can take it off.

I don't think there's too many facial coverings that keep your face covered except for these Muslim veils. So, yeah, it's aimed at that although they have said you can wear a motorcycle helmet, and if you have, you know, a bandage on your face from being injured, you can keep that on.

MARTIN: How is this law meant to be enforced?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I've seen a police directive, apparently, and what they're supposed to do is they stop the woman who's wearing it, ask her to remove it and show her ID. If she refuses, she can be taken to the commissariat, where it's stipulated that she should never be forced to take it off but just persuaded just to show who she is and prove she is who she is and her ID. And it should never take more than four hours.

And if she still refuses, what can follow is a fine, a $200 fine, and eventually a civics class. But actually, I spoke with the police today, and they said this still a pedagogical theory. You know, it's the first day. They said no one is going to be systematically stopped. It will be a case-by-case-basis thing. And they're going to see how it plays out.

They're going to see where there are trouble spots, you know, what sort of things are coming up when they're stopping women. But, you know, I also spoke with someone, the head of a police union, and they're kind of worried that this is going to create a much bigger problem than it's trying to solve.

And they said a lot of people who are insisting on wearing full face-covering veil and very happy to be taken in and arrested. They're looking for a polemic. And they also want to turn it around and put the burden on the police and show that, you know, they're just trying to live their lives. So some police are worried about that.

MARTIN: And have there been any people detained today? There have been reports that there were a couple of people detained. Was it received as an intentional act of civil disobedience? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the only thing I heard about, Michel, frankly, was that there was a demonstration against this law and that several people were detained not because they were wearing the burqa or niqab but because they did not get a protest permit from the city hall. They were protesting illegally near the Notre Dame cathedral. So that's all I can tell you about that right now.

MARTIN: Okay. And can you remind us again about why the administration of Sarkozy feels that this law is necessary. And how much public support does it have?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, I mean, this law is said to be just inherently incompatible with French values of equality of the sexes and secularism. And they do point to real things like there's been a problem with veiled women coming to preschools to pick up their children, and some of the teachers are like: I don't want to give this child away to someone that I'm not sure is not their mother or guardian. So, you know, they're asking people to take off the veil when they come into preschools.

You know, the government says it isolates women, it strips them of their humanity. People don't circulate very well. It's like civil society mixing. And it is funny because I interviewed a woman who was wearing the niqab Friday in a Muslim neighborhood outside of Paris, and she said to me: You know, it's quite an experience to wear it, a very emotional experience. You are completely cut off from society.

And she didn't mean that as a bad thing, but I think that's the whole government's point. These women are set aside. And also, there's a fear that they are being forced to wear it by, you know, sort of patriarchal Muslim society, or maybe their husband or their brothers are forcing them. So there's all these worries.

It also leads to this sort of burqa mentality. Like people say, like, separate hours at the swimming pools for boys and girls, you know, public swimming pool, men and women not being able to shake hands, you know, women not being able to be treated by male doctors.

So this all is sort of part of this sort of culture of separating women out. And that's what I think the government doesn't like, and that really is not a part of French value.

MARTIN: And tell me - and I'm going to turn to our two other guests in a minute. But tell me: How is this law being received broadly across France? What's the public reaction been to this?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, well, last year, there was a huge debate, and you heard every side, you know, what the side I've just explained about, you know, secularism and equality. And then you also heard people say: Come on, you can't even dress how you want in France. We're going to go after the tiny, tiny minority of women wearing this? Leave them alone. This is infringing on rights.

That was last year. And sort of six months ago, once the law was adopted, we haven't heard a word. Frankly, if it weren't for the TV and radio talking about it today, I feel like you would never know that the law was going into force.

Now, that might change. Maybe there'll be some incidents. I feel just from what I've been observing that this law is going to go into force, and there might be some problems in the beginning, but I feel it's going to be accepted eventually.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, the law stirs strong views, has stirred strong views, among Muslims and non-Muslims. So now we want to call upon two women, both of whom are Muslim, for their perspective. We're going to ask Eleanor Beardsley to stay with us to tell us more about her reporting if she feels that she would like to.

But first, Sihem Habchi is the president of the French Muslim feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises, which translates to Neither Whores Nor Submissives. The group has come out strongly in favor of the ban. And Sihem Habchi is with us by phone from Paris. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SIHEM HABCHI (President, Ni Putes Ni Soumises): Hi.

MARTIN: Also with us, Nabila Ramdani. She's a French journalist of Algerian background. She's written a number of commentaries for London's Guardian newspaper, expressing her opposition to the new law. She contributes regularly to publications in France, the United Kingdom and throughout the Middle East. And she's with us today from London. Nabila, thank you so much for joining us also.

Ms. NABILA RAMDANI (Journalist): Hello.

MARTIN: Sihem, why don't we start with you? As a person of the faith, why do you support this ban on the niqab and the burqa?

Ms. HABCHI: Because I'm fighting against any kind of oppression against women. And people know from Paris to Kabul that the niqab is a sign of oppression, but also it's a sign of how the fundamentalist groups want to separate women and men in the public area.

That is, for us, segregation. I'm fighting against any kind of segregation, exclusion, social exclusion, but also among our community, why the only - we put this oppression on women. That's why we need to be supported.

But I'm not fighting for repression of women. My organization fights for pedagogy and to give the hand to all these women who, today, they have no other discourse that are given to them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the ban on all forms of face veils that went into effect today in France.

We're speaking with Sihem Habchi. She's the president of a French Muslim feminist group who strongly supports the ban, and also Nabila Ramdani, a French journalist of Algerian background who has written a number of commentaries on this issue. She strongly opposes the ban. Also with us, Eleanor Beardsley, who reports on France for NPR.

Nabila Ramdani, what about you? What is your thought about this, and why are you opposed to it?

Ms. RAMDANI: Well, we've heard a segment from Nicolas Sarkozy earlier, and he's right. The law is not about religion. As an actual fact, the text of the law doesn't mention Islam even once.

He claims it's about liberty and dignity. And it is, for me, abundantly clear that this ban is a violation of fundamental human rights and has little to do with the liberation of women or the dignity. Quite the opposite because in actual terms, what this ban would mean is that it forbids women from stepping out of the house, which means that effectively, it prevents them from being free individuals.

It excludes them from society completely, and it effectively puts them under house arrest. It's in fact a very sinister state interference into religious matter and a cynical political move to capture the far right vote ahead of the presidential elections next year.

And it is a cynical text of law because it not only tells women how to dress, which is patronizing enough. But worse still, it criminalizes a handful of women who have chosen a lifestyle of their own in respect of the secular nature of French society, and I have to insist on that point, to choose to cover their faces.

MARTIN: What about Nabila's point that if women are choosing the veil that they will, in fact, be confined to their house, even more isolated than they are now?

Ms. HABCHI: No, sorry. I'm working on the grassroots, and with this kind of women. Okay? There is a contradiction from - Eleanor said that it's not religious obligation to wear the full face. Okay? Everyone is saying that. But in the same time, some person are defending the burqa as a religious belief and choice. I don't understand.

I don't understand why there is different kind of discourse. If you're in Afghanistan, the burqa and the niqab is bad. Okay? But here, in Europe and in U.K., it's okay. I know a lot of women who have this oppression and pressure in their body. You don't have any choice. If you grow up in the place, you have this education, and you have men that follow you if you don't respect their rules. So today...

Ms. RAMDANI: With all due respects, Sihem...

Ms. HABCHI: ...in this time, I'm not having any lessons from especially country where they tolerate not only fundamentalist groups, but some groups who have to kill women who had practice adultery.

MARTIN: Sihem. Sihem, hold on a second. I think you're talking about honor killings, as I understand that you see as part of a continuum. But that's a different issue for a different day. So I'm going to ask us to stick to this particular issue for right now.

Nabila, what about her point, that this is needed to create a public space for women who otherwise would be pressured by their communities, by their families to act against their own will? That they really can't - without this law, they can't really exercise free choice. What about that, Nabila?

Ms. RAMDANI: Well, obviously, it's not designed to create a public space for these women, because they are excluded from this public space. Just like Sihem, I am French, of Algerian background myself, and I know France inside out. I've also met these women. A lot of them are telling me that it is actually a liberating tool for them.

Ms. HABCHI: Oh, brother(ph).

Ms. RAMDANI: And what this law is achieving is excluding them. And if I may add, a very crucial point here: Even if there were instances of women being forced into wearing it - which I believe there is, in a minority of cases -there is already ample legislation at the national level in France, European laws, making sure that no form of abuse against women whatsoever is allowed. There is no need for a comprehensive legislation, for blanket legislation which achieves nothing but create a very - it introduces a very definite link between crime, abuse and Islam.

MARTIN: But could you address her specific points there? She said that that might be fine, but on the ground, the reality is, in these communities, that the pressure is such that if you don't cover yourself, you're subject to a level of harassment. You're not going to exercise...

Ms. RAMDANI: But Michel, I am talking about people I've met on the ground. I have - I am myself from - I grew up on those infamous housing estates outside Paris. I know these women. I've met them. My mom works in the school. She deals with women wearing niqabs day in, day out. They're quite happy to show their faces when they go to pick up their children.

But the sad reality is that from now on, they won't be able to go to school to pick up their children because they are being treated like criminals. And Eleanor pointed out that fact in her report earlier. She said they are not criminals, and yet the state is treating them as such.

MARTIN: All right. We're almost out of time, and I need a closing thought from each of you.

And, Sihem, you already had the floor, so why don't you conclude? Do you feel, Sihem, six months from now, a year from now, that there will be acceptance of this law and that it will be better for the women with whom you work?

Ms. HABCHI: Yeah, of course, the law will be accepted. What I'm not sure is that I think the reality is today that the leg(ph) of democracy in our poor area is still there. So if we don't work on this, the others and the fundamentalist groups will take this leg of democracy and use it, and they will find another issue. They will find another thing to target and to have a place in this country.

MARTIN: Okay. And, Nabila, a final thought from you, as well. I know a year from now - I understand that you strongly oppose this as a matter of a violation of religious freedom, but what do you think the circumstances will be?

Ms. RAMDANI: Well, first of all, I have to say that I'm far from impressed by Sihem's view, who claims to be a feminist. Because the whole point of living in a democracy like France - which prides itself in the respect of freedom of expression and human rights - is to let people live and let live. And surely, France should empower women to make autonomous choices for themselves. And if they choose to cover their faces, they should be perfectly allowed to do so. And it's not going to look good in France.

We have a division within the French government. The prime minister himself came out to say that he's opposed to the ban because the aim will be to stigmatize the Muslim community. You have the leaders of the six main religions in France, including the Grand Rabbi, who said it's very difficult to be a Muslim in France nowadays. And he said it's even worse now with this debate and this law which divides people and, in fact, encourages disrespect instead of uniting them.

So it's not looking good. It's very grim, and I know a lot of people who will challenge the ban. They will take the cases to the European laws - courts of law.

MARTIN: And that's my final question for Eleanor Beardsley. I wanted to ask you, Eleanor: What is the next step here - as you've heard from this conversation very strong views on both sides.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Right. Well...

MARTIN: And I do appreciate all of you for participating in this conversation.

So, Eleanor, what is the next step, here? Is there one?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I think there probably will be cases taken to the European Court of Human Rights. And there's even other cases of - there was a man who says he's going to pay all the fines of the women wearing the burqa, so that they can be free to wear them.

I mean, I agree with certain points both of you guys have made. I have to say I don't think too many people are being forced to wear the niqab in France, because, quite frankly, everyone who wears it out that I've talked to says it's not even in the Quran. They're just doing the extra step.

Secondly, if they weren't to wear that, they could completely cover themselves if they just left the small place for their face. So I don't think that it's taking away - you know, that's my opinion. It seems like you could still totally veil yourself if you just showed your face.

But one thing I would say is that I do think the law is a bit political. I agree with Nabila when she says that. There's so few women that wear the burqa and the niqab. And in a country like France, I think the garment will ultimately disappear because, you know, I interviewed an 18-year-old who said she wanted to wear it till the day she died. But really, how long is he going to last in France with her complete covering black over her entire body? Probably not very long.

So I think that Sarkozy is just pushing for this law. Really, it's a non-issue, I think. And he wants voters from the far right. He's scared of a rise in the far right. So I think the reasons for enacting it are a bit sinister.

MARTIN: Eleanor Beardsley reports for NPR from Paris. She was with us from there.

Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist who's written for publications in France, the United Kingdom and throughout the Middle East, and she strongly opposes the burqa ban, as it's known. And she joined us from London.

And Sihem - sorry. And Sihem Habchi is the president of the French Muslim feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises. It means Neither Whores Nor Submissives. And she was with us by phone from Paris.

Ladies, I thank you all so much for joining us.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. RAMDANI: Thank you.

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