A public debate is raging in France after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that burkhas are not welcome in France.
Addressing parliamentary deputies and senators at the Versailles Palace on Monday (June 22), Sarkozy argued that the garments, worn by some Muslim women to cover themselves from head to toe and hide their faces, were an affront to their dignity.
"We should make no mistake: in France the Muslim faith should receive the same respect as other religions. The burkha question is not a religious one; it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity. The burkha is not welcome in France. We cannot accept that in our country, some women be imprisoned behind a screen, cut from all social life and deprived of all identity. That is not the French Republic's idea of women's dignity," said Sarkozy.
Sarkozy backed a cross-party initiative by some 60 legislators for a parliamentary commission to find ways to stop the burkha's spread.
France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, is divided over how to reconcile secular values with religious freedom.
Many see the burkha as an infringement of women's rights and say it is being imposed on many Muslim women by fundamentalists.
French cabinet members are divided on whether a ban on burkhas would be appropriate.
A government-approved body representing French Muslims spoke out any such a ban,
saying it would stigmatise Muslims.
"The word 'burkha' is what shocks me. Because the burkha does not exist in France. What some women here wear is called a niqab. The burkha is a one-piece garment that comes from Afghanistan, with a screen. It does not exist in France. Another thing that shocks me is the grouping of all these garments under the word "burkha," which can have an Afghanistan connotation. They use the word to scare people," said Abdallah Zekri, a member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
He warned that indivdual freedoms had to be protected.
"Everyone is free to do what they want. One hides her face, another exposes her breasts. That's freedom. That's France. That's the France I learned about in books. The country of human rights, individual liberty, freedom of conscience. That's what we need to work on, rather than stigmatising Islam and Muslims, because even moderate people get fed up with that after a while," said Abdallah Zekri.
The burkha issue is the latest in a series of debates that have divided France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, over how to reconcile secular values with religious freedom.
"I am Muslim and I am proud of it. But I have had enough of all the people who use my religion to oppress. And we are a lot of youth, young people across Europe that say 'no' today. Stop using our religion. We want to say that Islam and democracy is OK, that Islam and secularism is OK also. So we want to be a part of this society," said Sihem Habchi, who heads Ni Putes ni Soumises, an organisation that defends women's rights in France.
Hanchi also called for legislation to protect basic freedoms. "Unfortunately if we need a law to stop this movement of fundamentalists here in our country, we have to do that," she said.
The debate is reminiscent of a controversy that raged for a decade in France about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school. Eventually, a law was passed in 2004 banning students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols at state schools.
PARIS, FRANCE (JUNE 26, 2009)REUTERS