The face-veil has played a political role in French society since the wearing of all "conspicuous" symbols of religion, including the hijab, was outlawed from schools in 2004. However, this debate has received new impetus in the past seven months, since President Sarkozy said that the face-veil, or niqab, was "unwelcome" in French society.
The French parliamentary panel tasked with informing policy on the matter yesterday recommended a partial ban on the niqab in all hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices. The report concluded that "the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic". It also wants women who cover their faces to be denied state services, including work visas, residency papers or citizenship.
A complete ban on the face-veil in public was pulled at the last minute, following a challenge from the Socialist opposition and concerns over the legality of such a move.
Presenting the report, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said: "It is the symbol of the repression of women, and . . . of extremist fundamentalism."
However, the findings of the Muslim West Facts Project questions this claim. This collaborative research venture between the Coexist Foundation and Gallup, published as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 at the end of last year, explores "attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the United Kingdom about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation".
Perhaps surprisingly for Accoyer, the report's findings do not corroborate his views.
With regard to "extremist fundamentalism", the report notes: "The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab [sic] with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women." Importantly, the general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.
Regarding the link between "repression of women" and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.
First, it is important to note that there are differences between the hijab and alternative forms of veiling, as noted by Mehdi Hasan. The report can be rightly criticised for conflating the two. But there are more pressing points that need to be made.
Given the differences in attitude between the general and Muslim populations in France, the state should not be engaging in demonising and outlawing different forms of veiling. Rather, its resources should be invested in engaging with why such symbols and communal markers cause such consternation and discrepancies in attitude. As the report notes:
In terms of what religious signs and symbols are necessary to remove for minorities to be integrated, Gallup Poll findings show that the headscarf and face-veil strike the loudest chords among the general populations surveyed.
The removal of the face-veil from the public eye is not the way to reconcile issues of integration. Dialogue between and within different communities is the only way in which misconceptions and barriers to integration can be removed. Recognising the differences within and between communities, pluralising discussions and understanding the "other" are the steps to integration -- not wholesale bans on markers of difference.