French President Sarcozy this week desccribed the burqa - the face covering, floor length black garment worn by Muslim women - as a symbol of subservience that turns women into prisoners behind a screen.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. They have already banned the veil in State primary and secondary schools and now there's a new bill being proposed. If passed, women who wear Islamic veils in public places face a heavy fine and it could be doubled for Muslim men who force female members of their family to cover their faces. Jean-Francois Cope, president of Nicholas Sarcozy's ruling UMO Party says the legislation was intended to protect the dignity and security of women of France.
A TV debate was organised which included Cope. A 22 year old law student with dark brown eyes peering from the slit of her black veil was on the panel and caused a sensation when she explained that wearing the burqa was her own choice and no one made her do it. Dalila grew up in a poor suburb of Dijon and was insulted by a man in the street who told her to go back to Afghanistan. She's been wearing a full-face veil for about five years. The daughter of a Christian French mother and an Algerian father who she never knew, Dalila and her sister only started learning about Islam at the age of 13. "When we discovered Islam, my sister and I, we thought this is for us. So if tomorrow you decide to pass a law, I will no longer be able to leave my house" she told Cope. "I hope you spare a thought for me". Another woman who wears the burqa said in a radio interview that no one makes her wear it, she does it to preserve her beauty, especially for her husband.
I don't buy that. I think women wear the burqa for two reasons, they either want to or they have to. To me, it's a confronting gesture that sets her far apart from me which is rather sad. She is making a silent protest which says she has no intention of conforming to my way of life, unlike her Muslim sisters in Australia who choose to wear western-style clothes and are happy to blend in with the rest of us.
Only one Muslim woman agreed to testify before a parliamentary commission but not surprisingly, women wearing the veil are so cut off from mainstream French society they would never agree to a media interview so they weren't able to get a true picture of the situation. The final report is due to be released on 26th January which just happens to be Australia Day.