The media frenzy over the full-face veil ban in France is the latest political maneuver by the Sarkozy government looking to frame the presence and visibility of ethnic minorities, be they Muslims or more recently the Roma people, as a threat to national identity.
When first approached by the Open Society Foundations At Home in Europe Project to produce a report on the "niqab" controversy in France, based on the testimonies of the veil wearers themselves, I was not expecting my encounters with 32 niqabis, overwhelmingly French citizens, would radically change my take on the issue.
The sense of isolation for many of the women concerned could hardly have been greater. But I would never have been able to fully grasp it had I not met and spoken to 32 women in several French cities who for a variety of reasons had chosen to wear the veil. The eagerness with which most of them related their daily experiences and how the controversy had made them feel was reflective of the total lack of consideration given to such fundamental questions during the national debate over the banning of the full-face veil.
As the testimonies of the women interviewed soon revealed and as I witnessed myself, many French people had come to believe that it was their right, even their republican duty, to behave as members of a secularist enforcement squad parroting arguments they had heard on TV the night before to the niqabis they met in public.
As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from "ghost" and "Darth Vader" to "whore" and "slut," used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.
My first field trip kicked off in Paris at the Gare du Nord train station in October 2010, where I met Aisha, 19, and Bushra, 24. The encounter challenged some of my own expectations: from the youngsters’ backgrounds—a French national sports champion and a former rapper; their motivation for wearing the niqaba—a combination of what they saw as the quest for perfection and an undeniable act of rebellion; to the vehement opposition of their families.
Bushra’s decision to wear the niqab, for example, was greeted by her parents with an “are you mad or what? You’re going to become a terrorist!” Hers was not an isolated case with the research starkly revealing that in most cases the adoption of the niqab was initially opposed by family members.
“I find the Muslim community as manipulated as the rest of the French population,” said Eliza, a charismatic entrepreneur who like several respondents has decided to leave France. With few exceptions, most representatives of Islamic institutions, even those generally perceived as close to the government, opposed the ban on the full-face veil, rightly stressing that a law would be counterproductive and risked stigmatizing the entire Muslim population. However, they did so while distancing themselves from the practice of the full-face veil, frequently arguing that the niqab was “not part of the religion.”
“What hurts me the most,” Aisha told me, “is the community. Put it in your article, the umma [Arabic word meaning "community" or "nation"] is disappointing us.” In fact, not only did the majority of niqabis I spoke to feel let down by the Muslim representatives’ lack of support , but a significant number of them had also been shockingly abused by either Muslims or people of Arab descent, sometimes violently. A couple of women were spat on by Arab men while some niqabi women were accused by Muslims of “dirtying the religion,” “shaming” them, and making their lives harder in France.
Muslims and other ethnic minorities in France have served as scapegoats for a number of the country’s ills, the result being that many people in France, including the well-intentioned and progressive, seem to have lost sight of this furor.
Indeed by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite: “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect."