Conan Mckenzie, Lady Margaret Hall

‘The burqa is a uniquely isolating garment’

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One of the British tabloids’ favourite stories, which they wheel out several times a year almost without fail, is the ‘Muslims are taking over’ piece. It can be adjusted to suit different times and different outlets, but it is essentially homogenous, a one-size-fits-all insta-story ready

to be resurrected whenever there’s a bit of a slow news day. The story may be about proposed Mosques, requests for Korans in local libraries or lessons on Ramadan in schools, but the cumulative narrative never changes. According to this narrative, Muslim immigrants, with their veils, their Sharia Law, their Mosques and (never explicitly stated, but always implied) their habit of occasionally exploding, are engaged on a great mission to transform the country into an Islamic state, street by street, town by town. It’s an absurd distortion of the facts, but, like most stories that appear in the great British press there’s a seed of truth in amongst the exaggerations and falsifications.

The British government’s approach to immigration over most of the last sixty years has been dictated by the doctrine of multiculturalism, under which immigrant groups are encouraged to form their own communities and maintain the old cultural traditions that they brought with them from their previous homes, including those traditions that so annoy the tabloids. Multiculturalism hasn’t been entirely successful; separation, it turns out, tends only to encourage fear and suspicion amongst the majority community about the minority; hence the tabloid scare stories.

The French have a better system. Their approach focuses not on multiculturalism but on assimilation, on encouraging new immigrants to discard the trappings of their old countries and cultures, and instead to integrate into mainstream French society. To this end Muslim children are required to abide by French secular norms and are forbidden from wearing headscarves in school, just as Catholic children are forbidden from wearing visible crucifixes. Now Nicholas Sarkozy wants to go one step further, and ban adult women from wearing the burqa, on public transport and in all publicly-owned buildings in France. This policy is a continuation of the long-standing French emphasis on immigrants adopting French cultural norms. But the importance goes beyond cultural tradition; the burqa is a uniquely isolating garment, because by hiding a woman’s face, it prevents other people from having any sort of meaningful interaction with her. It cuts its wearer off from society, and isolates her from the community (sometimes involuntarily; there is considerable anecdotal evidence that many Muslim women are forced to wear a burqa against their will). The burqa makes a mockery of France’s aim of integrating immigrants into society.

France has, so far, done a reasonably good job of preventing recent immigrants from retreating into their own ethnic communities; banning the burqa in public buildings will continue the good work, and enable Muslim women to play a full part in French society. That way, the French tabloids will have nothing to complain about.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, Meida Representative, Oxford University Islamic Society

‘The integration debate, of which this the latest manifestation, is poorly veiled racism’

No one in France actually wears a ‘burqa’, the traditional garb imposed by the Taliban on women in Afghanistan. By using the term, Sarkozy was using a mental slippage technique which allowed people to feel like they were opposing oppression in Afghanistan through supporting state oppression of women in France. Less than 2000 French women actually wear a face veil which explains much of its mystic and the inability to focus on the bigger picture.

The real issue all women face is the struggle for self-determination – the struggle to make choices for themselves about themselves, unfettered by over-zealous clerics or patronising presidents. Muslims who wear the face veil fully support security procedures requiring their identification and have cooperated fully to this end. The core of this debate is not about security or Sarkozy’s alleged passing penchant for these women’s rights, otherwise he might have consulted at least one in the mock commission set up to ‘investigate’ the face veil. Rather, it is about vote betting in identity-crisis ridden France.

The integration debate, of which this the latest manifestation, is poorly veiled racism. White French men in power telling Arab women what’s best for them, is just the latest expression of neo-colonial arrogance. Historically, Arabs needed emancipation from their debased state of being through the imposition of ‘French’ culture. Today, many French can’t tolerate the thought these former ‘barbarians’ turned citizens might have a say in defining modern French identity.

The ripples of this discriminatory legislation will vindicate already widespread islamophobia and racism. French Muslims of Maghrebi ancestry are the victims of 68% of racist violence and face a 26.5% rate of unemployment compared with 5% overall. Young women in headscarves are already excluded from schools and public pools for adhering to their religious conviction and some women have been unable to marry, vote or take exams. In the case of immigrants, the irony is self evident: women are now being turned away from state-sponsored French language classes!

Supporters of the ban claim they are fighting for women’s dignity but few things could be quite as humiliating as being turned away from an office, denied entry to a hospital or escorted out of public transport. This legislation limits women’s participation in the public sphere and there is nothing empowering about that. Even through a burka, the instrumentalization of women’s bodies for electoral ends is clear for all to see.