Sarkozy’s Burka row stirs debate

In a recent speech, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the body-length garment worn by some Muslim women - the Burka - is not welcome in France. Sarkozy’s remarks have sparked strong reactions from Muslim communities around the world and some rights groups believe that banning the Burka is a breach of freedom of choice. MENASSAT takes a look at some of the responses in the Arab press and blogosphere.
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French President Nicolas Sarkovy: "We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity."

BEIRUT, June 29, 2009 (MENASSAT)- In his speech last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the Burka “deprived women of their dignity” and that it was unacceptable to have women in France be “prisoners” in their clothing. 

“We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity. This is not the idea the French Republic has of a woman's dignity,” he said.

France recently established a special Burka commission consisting of 32 lawmakers that will embark on a fact-finding mission in an attempt to restrict Burka-wearing in the country. The lawmakers have six months to analyze the issue before making recommendations.

In France, the terms "burka" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. A Burka is a full-body veil worn mostly in Afghanistan — with only a screen for the eyes. A Niqab is a veil that covers the entire body, often black, with slits for the eyes.

Strong reactions

Not surprisingly, France’s Burka-row has caused a stir and heated debates have been taking place among members of France’s Muslim community and elsewhere in the world.

"Burka is too much a marginal issue to have a parliamentary commission – which usually addresses judicial errors – set up for it," Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the official French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), said in a statement published in France’s Le Parisian on June 24.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that banning the Burka “will not give women freedom."

"It will only stigmatize and marginalize women who wear it,” said Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of HRW’s Paris office.

Web-based news site Islamonline published a compilation of Muslim reactions related to Sarkozy’s Burka remarks in a recent article titled “Burka probe upsets French, World Muslims.”

Reefat Drabu, assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) refuted Sarkozy’s claims that women wearing Burkas don't do so out of their own free will. 

“It is patronizing and offensive to suggest that those Muslim women who wear the Burka do so because of pressure or oppression by their male partners or guardians," said.

Such suggestions can legitimately be perceived as antagonistic towards Islam,” Islamonline quoted Drabu as saying.

Moustafa Al Shaka'a, a member of Egypt’s Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, said Sarkozy should not be telling Muslim women what to wear. The wearing of the Burka, he said, is a matter of “personal freedom.”

"Neither the burka or the niqab is ordered by Islam. They are local costumes, but Muslim women should not be forced to remove them. It's a matter of personal freedom,” Al Shaka'a told Gulf News.

In Lebanon, leading Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said that although women in Islam are not required to wear the Niqab (a veil that covers the entire face), “preventing women from choosing to do so if they choose to do it is against freedom of choice.”

“The same logic that says that we cannot force women to wear something, also says that we cannot force them not to wear something if they choose to do it,” said Fadlallah according to a report published by Lebanon’s Tayyar news website.

Arab News, an English-language daily on Middle Eastern affairs based in Saudi Arabia, published an op-ed on June 24 referring to Sarkozy’s Burka remarks as an apparent “attack on individual liberty.”

“Ever since its revolution 220 years ago, France’s motto has been 'liberté, egalité, fraternité' which more or less translates into English as 'liberty, equality, brotherhood.' It is a motto the French take seriously. So it may come as a bit of a shock to some that French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants the burqa banned. It seems like an attack on individual liberty — in this case the freedom of Muslim women in France to choose to cover their faces and not be seen,” read the article.

Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera

Articles published on the Burka probe on the leading Arab news networks Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera received a stream of responses from readers. Lebanese blogger Rafaat Hamze sent a report to MENASSAT, analyzing the comments made on each of the networks. 

“Readers' comments on and can give you a general sentiment of opinions among Arab Internet users. About a third of commentators on Alrabiya were of the opinion that France is free to impose its own laws within its own boundaries, in accordance with its own secular constitution, and that Muslim residents are supposed to conform to the prevailing laws of the host country.

"A few even supported the speech and wished for the secularization of Arab societies. On the opposite side of the spectrum, more than half of the respondents condemned the speech as discriminatory and oppressive of the Muslim community in France, interpreting it sarcastically as Sarkozy playing the role of the 'Mufti', an Islamic Legislator,” wrote Hamze.

On, comments were generally more religiously conservative, quoting the Quran and giving testimonies over the use of Niqab at the time of the Prophet, Hamze explained.

"Invention of extremists"

Among those who don’t believe Sarkozy is curbing freedom of choice by wanting to ban the Burka is Dalia Ziala, an Egyptian blogger and Director of the American Islamic Congress in North Africa.

She told MENASSAT that the Burka, in her opinion, does not symbolize religious freedom. To her, the garment is simply an “invention of extremists.”

“Sarkozy is speaking on behalf of the French people who elected him. They want their country to stay secular, with all due respect to religious freedom. So, what is the problem with that? Wearing Burka is not part of religious freedom and can never be regarded as so, because it is not a practice of Islam. It is a mere invention of extremists,” she said.

Ziada herself is veiled and says she is a “devout” Muslim. She believes that a woman's role in society, as advocated by Islam, becomes restricted if they wear Burkas.

“Neither Quran nor the Hadith ( oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) tells women to get covered from head to toe. On the contrary, Islam - as I understand it and I am a devoted Muslim wearing a hijab and practicing Islam - encourages women to be an integral part in the development process and be an equal partner of man in all activities. How can a woman fulfill this divine order while covered and having no clear identity among the society? Sarkozy did not order women to get naked. He only seeks them to show their clear identity to the world,” she said.

Wa7damasrya, also an Egyptian blogger, told MENASSAT that she believes the Burka reduces women’s dignity and thinks it would be a good idea to enforce a law that bans it. Meanwhile, she strongly opposes the French legislation, enacted in 2004, that prohibits the wearing of hijabs, veils, in French schools, along with large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps.

That law, says, Wa7damasrya, “denies basic human rights.”

France has the largest Muslim population of any Western European country with around five million adherents of Islam living in the country.