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This paper focuses on France and Islam with special attention given to the Burqa controversy. To appreciate the origins and history of the veil, the first part of this paper is an analysis of veil use in the three major monotheistic religions. The paper goes further to look at how France deals with the Islamic population and religious signs. Finally, it looks at how the burqa has become a problem for the French Government.
The Veil in Monotheistic Religions
Veils have been used in many cultures in the history of mankind. Some veils are worn for religious purposes. In a religion like Islam, veils are used by women as a sign of modesty. Apart from modesty, veils are used for many other purposes. For instance, some cultural groups have special veils.
The veil in such an instance is a cultural symbol. The veil in Islam helps to institute a socio-sexual distance and signifies personal devotion towards Allah. Veils used for religious purposes were adopted from the cultural groups among which given religions developed. This is the reason why all the monotheistic religions i.e. Christianity, Islam and Judaism have veils.
In given cultures around the world, especially among the tribes in ancient Palestine or current Middle East, all women used veils. This is because these tribes practiced certain forms of seclusion against women.
Women were secluded from men to avoid promiscuity. However, given physical seclusion was largely impractical; veiling was used as a way of ensuring a woman remained an untouched mystery of sorts. Later some women who rebelled against veiling were regarded as prostitutes i.e. people ready to trade their dignity with the pleasure of attracting men to themselves.
Beyond issues to do with seclusion, veils have been used among some cultures for general cleanliness e.g. keeping hair dry. In some other instances, veils were worn to signify life seasons e.g. special veils during funeral or when mourning. Some veils developed as a way of hiding identity. For example, individuals would veil themselves and walk around so as not to be identified.
In Judaism, most religious articles were veiled. Brides used to be veiled only to be unveiled on their marriage day. In day to day living, all indications show that Jewish women, practitioners of Judaism, veiled their heads and on special occasions even the face was veiled.
Christians borrowed veiling from the Jewish traditional way of life. Jewish women generally wore veils. In the early church, all church going women wore veils. There are many bible verses that talk about veiled women. There are liturgical veils that are used to cover the altar, church tabernacles, church documents and all sacred places or tools. Apart from veils used for sacred things or tools, head covering is an entrenched Christian practice.
The use of veils in Islam is also attributable to the Arab culture in which Islam developed. Even before Islam, Arab cultures general advocated for seclusion and veiling of women. Muslim women are required to dress as per to Hijab (modest dressing). Hijab refers to a code of dress for Muslim women meant to veil or to conceal some parts of the body that should not be seen by marriageable men.
There are a variety of veils worn by Muslim women. The basic veils are headscarves and are used for aesthetic purposes in addition to the modesty requirement. The burqa is characteristically different from the veils because it is a garment that practically covers the whole body.
In actual sense, no part of the face is left visible and one is only able to see and breathe through netting. “Veiling among Muslim women has become iconic in the world creating a distinct difference between dressing in eastern countries and dressing from the western countries”.
Islam in France
The jihadist crusades of Muslims led to introduction of Islam in France in the 8th century. However, after World War II, Islamic presence in France dwindled and currently, the Muslims in France are a minority group. Many of the Muslims in France are siblings of immigrants who came in search of green pastures.
Over the years, despite challenges, the government has sought programs that address immigrant’s characteristics e.g. documentaries on immigrants cultures. The surge of Muslims into France can directly be attributed to France colonization of Islamic areas especially in North Africa. Apart from the ever soaring numbers of Muslim immigrants, Islam grew in France from the conversion of some natives into the religion.
Unlike in other countries, due to overemphasis on secularism, Islam in France is overly strained. Many French people still consider Islam as an alien culture. They consider it inherited as its presence in France is as a result of immigration of Muslims mostly from Algeria and other northern Africa French colonies. Though France is a secular state, it has recently attempted to facilitate for representation of the Muslims.
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There was a move to create a “French Council of the Muslim Faith” in 2002 though it faced criticism with claims that it will enhance communism. Having been immigrants most of the Muslim families are relegated to living in suburbs outside the major towns where the conditions are poor. This probably is one of the causes of the Paris suburb riots in 2005.
How Government Deals with Muslim Population
The French government seeks to treat the Islamic community like any other citizens. It strives to ensure religion does not influence state operation in any way. It allows for congregating of Muslims and many mosques exist in France. However, the laïcité framework or code that guides religious conduct, no religion is allowed to display religious symbols or practice in public as to affect others.
This kind of approach to Muslims and people of other religions is supposed to foster integration and facilitated nationalism. People feel more belonging to France because religion does not come into play when in the public places. However, some people have argued that secularism should be more about accommodating difference thus integration than banning difference.
Muslims in France live a normal Islamic life except that they have to follow the laïcité framework. This framework or code of conduct specifies how religious conduct is to be approached. It stipulates that people have to practice their religion without affecting the rest of the public. Muslims in France are allowed to follow Islamic stipulates but due to general secularism, it is very difficult.
For example, they are allowed, as required of all Muslims, to carry out daily prayers (salah) and observe the fast of Ramadhan. However due to work demands and lack of proper recognition of Ramadhan feast days, many Muslims find it had to live their religion. The government, based on a proposal by the current president, set up “The French Council of Muslim Faith” (CFCM). The CFM controls Islamic conduct and works closely with the “Federation of French Muslims” and the “Union of Islamic organizations of France.”
The Burqa Problem
Since 1905, France adopted a framework called laïcité. The framework aims at the “separation of state and religion” or basically secularization of France so as to accord all citizens freedom and equality. It is on the basis of laïcité that veils were banned in schools and the work places. In the recent past, the burqa, which is a garment that covers the whole body (even the face) and is worn by Muslim women, came into focus.
Politicians have made concerted efforts to have the burqa banned. The biggest huddle to their intentions has always been the constitutionality of such a ban.
In March of 2010, the top most administrative court in France quashed plans to ban the burqa. The plan to ban the burqa had the support of President Sarkozy himself. The president had supported the ban on the ground that the burqa denied women the dignity they deserve. The attempted ban, supported by Sarkozy enlisted tremendous heated debates in France and across Europe.
Those in support of the ban have argued that it is in line with laïcité. According to them, laïcité as a framework aimed at ensuring all conspicuous religious signs and symbols are kept away from the public domain. There are other arguments that have been raised in favor of the ban. It is widely believed that some traditionalists force women to wear the full veils.
This is against the principles of equality as envisaged by French secularism. To tame those who may force others into wearing full veils, the ban had proposed a hefty fine. Radical Islam is perceived by the politicians, especially from the right wing, and majority citizens as being in disagreement with the cardinal French values. The French values are enshrined in the famous “liberte, egalite et fraternite”.
Radical Islamic values tend to place women in subservient positions and are thus understood to go against what being French means. The majority in France are very passionate about their national identity; the more reason why Sarkozy did badly in the regional elections.
Islamic scholars, on their part, are generally divided on whether wearing of veils is an Islamic imperative or not. Nevertheless, the traditionalists among the Muslims tend to favor the wearing of the ‘burka’. The government saw it fitting to ban the use of veils in schools as a way of ensuring equality and freedom for all.
The ban of veils in schools and other public places enlisted widespread condemnation, in some cases violent protests, by the Muslim fraternity. Many Muslims view the banning of the burka as a direct attack on Islamic religion and values. However, as Killian reports, majority of the Islamic women supported the ban on veils in schools thus are likely to support ban on burqa.
The biggest huddle to the banning of the burqa in France is the laws and courts by extension. It is for this reason; it is argued, that the Sarkozy government consulted the Council of State even before the law had been passed. Rorive explains that in EU law, the concept of indirect discrimination is very meaningful.
As the ruling of the council confirmed, both French laws and the EU laws do not support such a ban. According to the council of state, the move to ban the burqa was merely out of bias and there was no legal or jurisprudential basis for the same. There are those who had been arguing that a ban was necessary for the sake of public security. According to the council, a ban on the burqa alone in the name of public security does not stand the test of non-discrimination.
The history of the veil as an apparel indicates that it is a piece of clothing that has been used for long in many cultures. The use of the veil in the three major monotheistic religions resulted from the cultural practices in which the religions grew. The use of the veil is advocated for in the Quran. However, the Burqa i.e. a veil that covers the whole of a woman’s body, even the face is controversial and some Muslims concur that banning it in schools is welcome.
The French government seeks to bar any conspicuous religious practices that can affect the public. Based on its Laïcité framework, it banned the use of veils by school going girls. Statistics show that very few high students have refused to abide by it. It is in the opinion of analysts that an increase in Muslim schools could assist those who are objected to this ban. The ban has been seen as a discrimination against the Muslims.
Ahmad Fawzia, “Beyond the Hijab as a Lodestone”. Journal of Feminists Studies in Religion 24, No 1 (2008): 99- 101
Cesari Joselyne “The Muslim Presence in France and the United States: Its Consequences for Secularism” French Politics, Culture and Society 25, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 34-45
Dimier Veronique. “French Secularism in Debate: Old Wine in New Bottles” French Politics, Culture and Society 26, No. 1 (Spring 2008): 92-110
El Hamel Chouki. “Muslim Diaspora in Western Europe: the Islamic Headscarf (Hijab), the Media and Muslim’s Integration in France.” Citizenship Studies 6, No 3 (Carfax Publishing, 2003): 293 – 308
Grillo, R. D. Pluralism and the Politics of Difference: State, Culture, and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998
Jelen Brigitte. “‘Leur Histoire est Notre Histoire’: Immigrant Culture in France between Visibility and Invisibility” French Politics, Culture and Society 23, No. 2 (Summer 2005): 101 – 125
Borneman John “Veiling and Women’s Intelligibility” Cardozo Law Review 30, No. 6, (2009):2745- 2760
Kilian, Caitlin. From A Community of Believers to an Islam of the Heart: “Conspicuous” Symbols, Muslim Practices and the Privatization of Religion in France. Madison, Sociology of Religion 68, No. 6 (2007): 305-320
Mac Cormaic Ruadhán. “Imam Seeks Ban On Burqa As Report Set To Urge Prohibition In Public Places”. The Irish Times (January 23, 2010): 12
Rorive Isabelle “Religious Symbols in the Public Space: the search for a European answer” Cardozo Law Review 30, No. 6, (2009):2669- 2698
Sachs, Susan. “Will France Dictate What Muslim Women Can Wear?; Committee’s Hearings On The Niqab Will Pit Ideal Of A Secular State Against The Guarantee Of Religious Freedom”. The Globe and Mail (July 7, 2009 Tuesday): 1-2
Saltmarsh, Matthew. “French Panel Stops Short Of Total Ban on Full Veil; Deputies Recommend Excluding Muslim Garb in Public Facilities.” International Herald Tribune (January 27, 2010): 1-2
Scott, M. Joan. “Symptomatic Politics: The Banning Of Islamic Headscarves in French Public Schools. Institute for Advanced Study”. French Politics, Culture & Society 23, No. 2 (Winter 2005): 106-127
Solihu Abdul Kabir Hussain “Making Sense of Hijab and Nigab in Contemporary Western Societies” Intellectual Discourse 17, No.1 (2009): 25-41
Weil Patrick. “Lifting the Veil”. Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique, French Politics, Culture and Society 22, No. 3 (Fall 2004): 142-149
- Ahmad Fawzia, “Beyond the Hijab as a Lodestone”. Journal of Feminists Studies in Religion 24, No 1 (2008), 99- 101
- R. D. Grillo. Pluralism and the Politics of Difference: State, Culture, and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 116
- Abdul Kabir Hussain Solihu “Making Sense of Hijab and Nigab in Contemporary Western Societies” Intellectual Discourse 17, No.1 (2009), 26
- Solihu, 26
- John Borneman “Veiling and Women’s Intelligibility” Cardozo Law Review 30, No. 6, (2009):2745- 2760)
- Chouki El Hamel. “Muslim Diaspora in Western Europe: the Islamic Headscarf (Hijab), the Media and Muslim’s Integration in France.” Citizenship Studies 6, No 3 (Carfax Publishing, 2003), 294
- Caitlin, Kilian. From a community of Believers to an Islam of the Heart: “Conspicuous” symbols, Muslim Practices and the Privatization of Religion in France. Sociology of religion 68, No. 6 (2007), 305
- Brigitte Jelen. “‘Leur Histoire est Notre Histoire’: Immigrant Culture in France between Visibility and Invisibility” French Politics, Culture and Society 23, No. 2 (Summer 2005), 126
- Joselyne Cesari “The Muslim Presence in France and the United States: Its Consequences for Secularism” French Politics, Culture and Society 25, No. 2 ( Summer 2007), 37
- Veronique Dimier. “French Secularism in Debate: Old Wine in New Bottles” French Politics, Culture and Society 26, No. 1 (Spring 2008), 99
- Killian, 308
- Killian, 311
- Cesari, 37
- Patrick, Weil. “Lifting the Veil”. Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique, French Politics, Culture and Society 22, No. 3 (Fall 2004), 142
- Ruadhán Mac Cormaic. “Imam Seeks Ban on Burqa as Report Set to Urge Prohibition In Public Places”. The Irish Times (January 23, 2010), 12
- Weil, 144
- Joan M. Scott. “Symptomatic Politics: The Banning Of Islamic Headscarves in French Public Schools. Institute for Advanced Study”. French Politics, Culture & Society 23, No. 2 (Winter 2005), 104
- Killian, 310
- Scott, 107
- Killian, 306
- Susan, Sachs. “Will France dictate what Muslim women can wear?;Committee’s hearings on the niqab will pit ideal of a secular state against the guarantee of religious freedom.” The Globe and Mail (July 7, 2009 Tuesday), 1
- Isabelle Rorive “Religious Symbols in the Public Space: the search for a European answer” Cardozo Law Review 30, No. 6, (2009), 2673
- Solihu, 29
- Matthew Saltmarsh. French panel stops short of total ban on full veil; Deputies recommend excluding Muslim garb in public facilities. International Herald Tribune (January 27, 2010), 1