We must let Muslim women who wear the veil speak for themselves

We all know what our politicians think of Muslim women who wear the veil. But the women themselves are rarely asked to explain their decision. Now, as the veil is banned in France, a report is published giving 32 Muslim women in that country a chance to defend their choice.
Stuart Weir
12 April 2011

We know what Jack Straw thinks about Muslim women who wear the veil.  President Sarkozy told the French Parliament and nation what he thinks.  But women who wear the veil in public are scarcely ever asked why they do so.  Now however the Open Society Foundations have asked 32 women in France why they wear the full-face veil in public as part of their At Home in Europe Project and have published a report, Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France.  Their aim is to give the women the opportunity to explain their choices and to expose and counter the myths and misconceptions that fuel the hysterical reaction to the very few women in French society and across Europe. 

What precisely does President Sarkozy think?  In June 2009, he addressed the assembled members of the two chambers of the French Parliament in response to a demand from 58 MPs across the political spectrum to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry, along the lines of the “Stasi Commission” (the parallel a sure signal in itself of hysteria that an insignificant handful of women inspires), to investigate the phenomenon and to consider the legislative response that has led to the ban on wearing the full-face veil in France.

President Sarkozy gave his blessing to the call for a parliamentary commission and said:

“The problem of the burqa is not a religious one. It is an issue of freedom and dignity of the woman [applause]. The burqa is not a religious sign; it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. I want to solemnly say [applause] it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic! […] Parliament has expressed its will to address this question. This is the best way to proceed. There needs to be a debate and all viewpoints must be expressed. Where, outside of Parliament, could they be better expressed? But I say to you; let us not be ashamed of our values, let us not be afraid of defending them.” 

What then do these manifest ‘enemies within’ have to say for themselves?  Naima Bouteldja interviewed 32 women across France, a roughly representative group for the 1,900 or so women who wear the veil.  All but three of them were born in France and 30 of them are French citizens. Eight were converts. Twenty-one of them are aged under 30; 14 were educated at least to the equivalent of A level standard; ten work full or part time.. 

None were forced in any way to wear the veil. Indeed, the mothers and families of 20 of them initially disagreed with their decision, “sometimes vehemently”, fearing that they would not be able to pursue a professional career or for their safety: many were influenced by the predominant media views. Some of the women at first wore the veil in secrecy from their family.  Most of them did not always wear the veil in public,  because of the family tensions, work regulations or “the general socio-political environment”.

Wearing the veil was not an act of rejection of society. Most of the women had active social lives. The Sarkozys and worse elements in our societies seek to de-legitimise the religious and spiritual significance of wearing the veil. Bouteldja writes that most of the women wore the veil “as part of a spiritual journey” to deepen their relationship with God and to draw on the actions of the wives of the Prophet Mohammed for guidance.

Many of the women, and especially the younger ones, were also inspired to wear the veil by the controversy over the wearing of the veil itself – by the “15-year-long national hysteria”,  by the “endless and often aberrant media controversies”, by the “discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities in France”.  Others found it an “aesthetic” experience, or decided at puberty to escape “unwanted male attention”.

Bouteldja says that the high levels of verbal abuse most of the women suffered cannot be underestimated or stressed enough.  The abuse came mainly from white French women, aged between 30 and 50. Few young people were abusive.

“A few respondents related that they could not understand why people saw them as oppressed victims or terrorists while at the same time verbally assaulting them in public places. Only two women [both infrequent wearers] in the entire sample said that they had never been abused. The women were called everything from the names of fictional characters like Batman, Darth Vader, and Fantomas to offensive words like whore or slut. Remarks made by members of the public also referred to women’s rights, to the ban of the full-face veil .  . . Often passers-by would shout: ‘Go back toyour country’ or ‘We are in France here!’

"A minority of cases involved physical abuse, such as passers-by spitting on the woman or attempting to tear off her veil. At least five women also reported that members of the public had photographed them without permission as if they were animals in a zoo.”

Many women felt strongly that politicians were attempting to gain votes by scapegoating Muslims at a time when France was beset by social, political, and financial crises. A few also believed that the government was fearful of the rise of Islam while others argued that both the French government and its people have not come to terms with the fact of a multicultural France.

Yesterday, the legislation banning the full-face veil came into effect. The women face a difficult dilemma now. Very few openly acknowledged that they would remove their full-face veil in April with younger interviewees adamant that they would resist. However, already two of those who reported that they would not remove the veil have subsequently done so.

During a six-month period, the Parliamentary Commission heard testimonies from some 211 people: feminists, politicians of all persuasions, representatives of Muslim organisations, secularists, women’s and human rights groups, academics, intellectuals, and journalists. It travelled to several French cities and also ventured into Belgium and questionnaires were sent to French embassies in Europe, Canada, the United States, Turkey, and several Arab countries. 

Towards the very end of its mandate, in late 2009, the Commission’s members had the novel idea to interview a Muslim woman who wore a full-face veil, but not before demanding she unveil her face during her hearing.10 André Gérin, a French Communist MP and the Commission’s president, explained that in order “to perfect our judgment, we absolutely wanted to listen to at least one woman who wears the full veil.”

Kenza Drider, the Muslim woman heard by the Commission, was also interviewed for the Open Society Foundations report. According to Drider, she had sent several letters to Gérin asking if she could appear before the Commission and that it was only through her persistence and thanks to her media contacts that she was eventually invited as one of the last guests to be heard. A mere 10-line paragraph in the 658-page Commission report is dedicated to her testimony.

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