France Contemplates Banning Burqas

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched an attack on the burqa. He called the traditional garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the body and face a "prison." Sarkozy has given the green light to a parliamentary commission that will consider passing a law against wearing the burqa in France. Critics say the gown is no threat to French society and that Sarkozy's position is all political posturing.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched an attack on the burqa. That's the traditional garment worn by some Muslim women that covers both the face and the body. Sarkozy is calling the garment a prison, and he says it shouldn't be worn in France. And now a parliamentary commission is looking into whether burqas should be banned. Sarkozy's critics accuse the president of political posturing.

Eleanor Beardsley sent us this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: When President Sarkozy delivered a sweeping speech from the Chateau of Versailles to lay out his vision for the future of France, he chose that symbolic moment to weigh in on the divisive social issue: the burqa.

Sarkozy told French lawmakers that the burqa was not about religion, but about the subjugation of women.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through Translator) We cannot accept women imprisoned behind the screen cloth and cutoff from all social contact and deprived of their identity. This is not the French Republic's idea of human dignity.

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BEARDSLEY: Under the elevated train tracks in the North of Paris near the Metro Stop Barbes, the weekly market is underway. Vendors are hawking their fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, most of the people are African and Arab, and it feels more like Cairo than Paris - and most women are wearing Muslim head scarves and full-length dresses, but not the burqa. The smiling face of Sully Manunez(ph) is the only flesh showing on her navy blue robbed body. The 41-year-old Manunez, who was born and raised in France in an Algerian family says she only began wearing the full-length veil a year ago. But she says she understands Westerns discomfort with the burqa.

Ms. SULLY MANUNEZ: (Through Translator) Even I need to see someone's face to know if they're smiling or angry. Maybe the wearer of a burqa doesn't want to be seen or talked to, but it leaves you with an uneasy feeling. You can't blame people for wondering who's under there. It could be a terrorist with a bomb.

BEARDSLEY: Thirty-year-old Zinab Zidaney(ph) is not wearing a burqa either, but she's dressed in a head scarf and full-length long-sleeved robe. She says she's well-aware of Sarkozy's proposal to ban burqas.

Ms. ZINAB ZIDANEYL (Through Translator) It's quite frankly unacceptable in a country of so-called liberty to tell people what to wear.

BEARDSLEY: Five years ago, France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, passed a highly contentious law prohibiting head scarves in public schools and offices. That measure has been accepted over time, but Muslims here say the new debate over the burqa will only stir up religious tension. The French-Muslim Council says the parliamentary commission is unnecessary because very few people wear the burqa. Jean-Marie Fardeau, the head of Human Rights Watch in France, says the government should attempt to eradicate the burqa through education and not prohibition.

Mr. JEAN MARIE FARDEAU (Head of Human Right Watch in France): The main impact of this law will be to stigmatize, to marginalize modest women and to make them to stay at home for instance.

BEARDSLEY: Talk of the burqa has been dominating the French airwaves and newspapers. One burqa wearer, Fidel Alwan Decladare(ph) called a radio station to assure listeners that wearing it is her decision.

Ms. FIDEL ALWAN DECLADARE (Burqa Wearer): (Through Translator) I know when my face is veiled, men don't try to pick me up. I do it to preserve my beauty for my husband, but he didn't ask me to wear it. That's stupid. I'm only submissive to God.

BEARDSLEY: Back at the market there's still no sign of anyone wearing a full burqa, but there is 31-year-old Abu Hoff(ph) whose wife wears one or at least she used to.

Mr. ABU HOFF: (Through Translator) She doesn't want to wear the burqa anymore. She says she got tired of being insulted on the streets when she wore it. But I want her to wear one. A woman's beauty starts with her face and I don't want other people to be able to enjoy her. She should just be for me.

BEARDSLEY: Despite its unified dislike for the burqa, members of the French government are divided over whether a ban would be affective or just stir up resentment. Sarkozy's critics say he is only using the issue to boost his support with women and further divide his opposition on the left.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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