Article by the Ambassador of France to Pakistan
France, Bastille Day and the Burqa
Ambassador to Pakistan.
past two weeks, we have seen a significant number of opinions expressed in the
Pakistani print media about the debate in France regarding the wearing of the
the opinions expressed in those articles, sometime show a sense of surprise,
but more often clear disapproval.
What sparked those reactions ?
Three weeks ago, a member of
the French National Assembly suggested that a parliamentary commission be set
up to look into the new, but spreading, phenomenon of the burqa in France. His
proposal received wide support among all political parties.
President Nicolas Sarkozy
then made a statement on the burqa, while addressing the two chambers of
Parliament : “we cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a
mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French
Republic’s idea of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is
a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French
But President Sarkozy also
stressed that “ France must not fight the wrong battle. The Muslim religion
must be respected in the country as much as other religions”.
French show great respect for Islam, because France knows what Islam is, for a
number of reasons.
part of our history, that led us to know about the great Moslem civilizations,
through the work of renowned French scholars. Strong bonds with Moslem
Northern and Sub-Saharan African States, dating to the colonial period, have
part of our geography : it is President Sarkozy’s policy to expand to the
greatest possible extent our partnerships with the Mediterranean countries,
eight of which are Members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe ( 5 million). There are
around 2000 Moslem prayer rooms, and 12 great mosques. More mosques are being
France is a country of
religious freedom. Our ancestors fought very hard for that principle, and it
stands today as a crucial foundation of the French Republic. All religions are
welcome, on an equal footing, and everybody is entitled to practice his or her
faith. Free practice for every religion is not only allowed, but protected by
the State : this is what we call secularism.
The citizens’ choice of
religion is irrelevant for the State. This implies strict neutrality on the
part of the State. It explains a piece of legislation that was at the time
misunderstood in the Muslim world : the banning of conspicuous religious signs
in State-run schools. What was it about ? By banning signs such as a Christian
cross, a Jewish kippa, a Sikh turban or a Muslim veil, from State-owned
primary and secondary schools, Parliament intended that they remain a
religiously neutral space for the children. It was never, and it never will
be, a general ban on religious signs. The hijab is allowed everywhere in
public areas. It is perfectly allowed in universities, but not at school,
because experience shows it is questionable whether the decision to wear a
hijab constitutes a free choice of the young girls.
But let us
come to the current debate. What will be studied by the newly created
commission of the French National Assembly is the wearing of the integral
veil, this attire which even covers the eyes of a woman. The general
perception in my country is that instead of being a sartorial choice, it is an
instrument of oppression. That it is degrading for women, and at complete odds
with the tenets of equality on which modern society is based.
to realize that there are practical hurdles to the wearing of the burqa in a
country like France. In these cities where the burqa is worn, there are more
and more problems, for instance, when a woman wants to obtain from the
administration an identity card, but refuses to remove her burqa to have her
photograph taken. Problems in the city halls, for the wedding ceremonies, when
the mayor, as he has to do it according to our law, asks the bride to take her
burqa off, while the groom asks her to keep it on. For the willingness to
marry to be checked, both future husband and wife faces have to bee seen.
Difficulty also when a woman wearing a full veil faces an identity control by
a policeman, but does not accept because she cannot be seen uncovered by a
man. Hiding of the identity, rather than exposing it, poses more of a security
risk in this day and age.
celebrating Bastille Day, the French also celebrate a core of values, which
has not changed since July 14, 1789 : liberty, equality, fraternity. Where is
liberty for a woman prohibited by her husband, or brother, from having her
face seen ? Where is equality between men and women, a fundamental right for
us ? Where is fraternity, when communication with others is impeded ?
A debate is being initiated
in France on the burqa. As we generally do in my country when we have to face
a difficult and divisive challenge (in this case, divisive even within the
French Muslim community and among Muslim women), we ask our Parliament to look
into it and make recommendations. The members of the committee begin their six
months’ work without any prejudice. Will there be a ban, or no ban at all, or
only a partial one ? Will a law be deemed necessary or not ? Nothing has been
decided, everything is open.”