Friday, January 29, 2010

Democracy means individual responsibility, which means showing our faces.


The question is not if, but when and how France will banish full facial veiling from the streets of the République. Contrary to what has been reported in international media, the conclusions of the Parliamentary Commission are not the "government's" decision. President Nicolas Sarkozy is asking Parliament for a "solemn declaration" that veiled women do not belong in France, followed by an outright legal ban.

Paris is now concerned with crafting a law that will stand up to eventual challenges from the Conseil Constitutionnel and the European Court of Human Rights. Polls show that a majority of French people support the maximalist ban. French Muslim intellectuals, activists, and community leaders who represent the promise of an enlightened European Islam are asking for an unambiguous ban on the niqab. Poet and scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb calls the niqab the "ideological sign of radical Islam." Psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama exposes the "masochism" of the self-imposed veil, "unacceptable even in the name of individual freedom." Fadela Amara, undersecretary for Urban Affairs and former president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Whores Nor Doormats] calls the niqab "the visible, physical expression of fundamentalists." This week NPNS activists dressed in burqas gathered in front of the National Assembly and major party headquarters, calling on lawmakers to protect them from this violation of women's rights.

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Democracy means individual responsibility, which means showing our faces.

No one in France publicly supports the niqab—often inaccurately referred to as a burqa—except certain apologists hidden in yards of fabric finished off with a black veil that barely shows their eyes and thick gloves to hide their hands. The Islamist currents that propel this armada lurk behind the scenes or send out representatives in suits and ties who explain that the niqab is not a religious obligation, but that a legal ban would stigmatize Muslims.

The Socialist Party, in trying to define itself in opposition to Mr. Sarkozy without defending the garment, is tripping over the skirts of an extremist practice that is the antithesis of the feminism it supposedly defends. François Hollande, who is angling for the Socialists' presidential nomination in 2012, opposes facial veiling but claims a hasty law will provoke hostility and defiance. He wants more explanation, persuasion, and bipartisan consultation.

Socialist members of the parliamentary commission refused to so much as vote on the conclusions, in protest against the parallel debate on "national identity" launched by the Sarkozy government and construed as hostile to immigrants. In fact, the problem is not "immigration." France has always been a land of immigration. The problem is a certain category of French people—immigrants and native born—who do not accept the essential values that define the Republic and ensure the general welfare.

Facial veiling was the focal point of a much broader phenomenon—what could be called "creeping sharia"—that led Communist Deputy André Gerin to initiate the parliamentary investigation. As mayor of Venissieux, a troubled banlieue of Lyon, Mr. Gerin has witnessed a steady rise in Islamic assaults on social cohesion.

As the debate raged in the French media this week, journalists and TV cameras sought out veiled apologists who declared in muffled voices from the depths of the niqab that no one had imposed it and no one could force them to take it off. "Of course we lift the veil to be identified," declared one purist, "they don't even have to ask. As long as it's a woman." "And if it's a man?" "Oh no, out of the question!" Another "sister" went to the heart of the matter: "If they pass a law I won't obey it. The law of Allah is above the law of men."

There's the rub. And there's the message of defiance carried by these phantom women. How many are there? Two hundred? Two thousand? Has anyone gone door to door to locate them? Can you count them in the streets? How would you know if you were seeing five different women or the same woman five times? No one knows how many there are today and it doesn't matter. The issues are elsewhere.

For the French, the veil cannot be accepted as a religious accoutrement because it denies our democratic values. In a democracy the individual enjoys civil rights and accepts individual civil responsibility. This is why we show our faces, sign our names, look each other in the eyes. Moreover, integration into French society has always meant assimilation. The French do not want to follow what they see as the Anglo-Saxon model of juxtaposed ethnic ghettoes. Immigrants who master the French language, codes, style, tastes, and flair are sincerely accepted and flourish here. Today, the personal success stories of French Muslims could be swept away by a rising wave of radicalization.

The stakes are high and the debate could turn into a battlefield. Hassen Chalgoumi, the Imam of Drancy—known for his outreach to Christians and Jews—announced he is in favor of a ban on the niqab, which he calls "a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist proselytism… incompatible with life in society." A few days later a "commando" of 80 men burst into Chalgouni's mosque and threatened to get rid of "the imam of the Jews."

In sharp contrast to the cohort of veiled apologists, the France-Soir daily on Tuesday published the chilling testimony of a young woman who was nudged and pushed by her husband from hijab to jilbeb to niqab to total seclusion. The couple's devout Muslim families and neighbors looked on with approval as the young woman disappeared behind the veil, hiding her despair and the bruises inflicted by her violent spouse. One day she turned for help to Ni Putes Ni Soumises, threw off her veil, divorced, and began to live again. But she is terrified that "they" will find her and kill her.

The veiled saleswoman, in a shop near the radical Omar mosque on Paris's rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, says the debate has boosted sales of jilbeb, "as if the girls were buying it just to stoke controversy."

The woman in niqab is the figurehead of a subversive movement that threatens all democratic nations. A French ban that would clearly make full facial veiling unwelcome and out of bounds could be a hopeful sign for European citizens—in all their diversity.

Ms. Poller is an American novelist living in Paris since 1972.

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Nidra Poller

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