Veiled threats: row over Islamic dress opens bitter divisions in France
In the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, with its busy market, fast-food joints and bargain clothes shops, Angelica Winterstein only goes out once a week – and only if she really has to.
"I feel like I'm being judged walking down the street. People tut or spit. In a smart area west of Paris, one man stopped his car and shouted: 'Why don't you go back to where you came from?' But I'm French, I couldn't be more French," said the 23-year-old, who was born and raised in bourgeois Versailles.
Once a fervent Catholic, Winterstein converted to Islam
at 18. Six months ago she began wearing a loose, floor-length black jilbab, showing only her expertly made-up face from eyebrows to chin. She now wants to add the final piece, and wear full niqab, covering her face and leaving just her eyes visible.
"But this week, after Sarkozy announced that full veils weren't welcome in France, things have got really difficult," she said. "As it is, people sometimes shout 'Ninja' at me. It's impossible to find a job – I'm a qualified childminder and get plenty of interviews because of my CV, but when people see me in person, they don't call back. It's difficult in this country, there's a certain mood in the air. I don't feel comfortable walking around."
This week, France plunged into another bitterly divisive national debate on Muslim women's clothing, reopening questions on how the country with western Europe's biggest Muslim community integrates Islam into its secular republic. A parliamentary inquiry is to examine how many women in France wear full Islamic veils or niqab before a decision is made over possibly banning such garments in the street. More than 50 MPs from across the political spectrum have called for restrictions on full veils, called "degrading", "submissive" and "coffins" by politicians. Yet the actual numbers of niqab wearers in France appears to be so small that TV news crews have struggled to find individuals to film. Muslim groups estimate that there are perhaps only a few hundred women fully covering themselves out of a Muslim population of over 5 million – often young French women, many of them converts.
That such a marginal issue can suddenly take centre stage in a country otherwise struggling with major issues of mass unemployment and protest over public sector reform shows how powerful the symbol of the headscarf and veil remains in France.
Human rights groups warned this week that the row over niqabs risks exacerbating the growing problem of discrimination against women wearing standard Muslim headscarves. Five years on from the heated national debate over France's 2004 law banning headscarves and all conspicuous religious symbols from state schools, there has been an increase in general discrimination against adult women who cover their heads.
"Women in standard headscarves have been refused access to voting booths, driving lessons, barred from their own wedding ceremonies at town halls, ejected from university classes and in one case, a woman in a bank was not allowed to withdraw cash from her own account at the counter. This is clear discrimination by people who wrongly use the school law to claim that France is a secular state that doesn't allow headscarves in public places. It's utterly illegal and the courts rule in our favour," said Renee Le Mignot, co-president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples. "Our fear is that the current niqab debate is going to make this general discrimination worse."
Samy Debah, a history teacher who heads France's Collective against Islamophobia, said 80% of discrimination cases reported to his group involved women wearing standard headscarves.
He had rarely seen any instances of women wearing niqabs, even in the ethnically mixed north Paris suburb where he lives. "From our figures, the biggest discriminator against Muslim women is the state and state officials," he said. "What people have to understand is that the concept of French secularism is not anti-religion per se
, it is supposed to be about respecting all religions."
The current initiative against full Islamic veils began in Venissieux, a leftwing area on the industrial outskirts of Lyon. Its communist mayor, André Gerin, led proposals for a clampdown, saying he saw increasing numbers of full veils in his constituency.
"I call them walking prisons, phantoms that go past us, it's that visual aspect that's an issue," Gerin said. "There's a malaise in the general population faced with the proliferation of these garments. I sense that on the part of Muslims, too."
Gerin said women in niqab posed "concrete problems" in daily life. "We had an issue in a school where a headteacher at the end of the school day didn't want to hand back two children to a phantom," he said. Gerin has refused to conduct the town-hall wedding of a woman wearing niqab. Another woman wearing a full veil was refused social housing by a landlord in the area. The mayor said that when women haven't removed their face covering, it has resulted in conflict with public officials who often felt insulted or under attack. But he denied stigmatising the wider Muslim population.
"The current situation [where women wear niqabs] is stigmatising Muslims," he said. His aim was to "establish a debate with the Muslim community, integrate Islam properly into French life" and expose fundamentalist practices.
Two previous calls for a law restricting full veils have been left to gather dust. This time, the debate is gathering force. There are divisions in the government itself – the feminist Muslim junior minister, Fadela Amara, supports a niqab ban while the immigration minister, Eric Besson, warns it would create unnecessary tension.
Horia Demiati, 30, a French financier who wears a standard headscarf with her business suits, said: "I really fear an increase in hatred." She recently won a discrimination case after she and her family, including a six-month baby, were refused access to a rural holiday apartment they had booked in the Vosges. The woman who refused them argued that she was a secular feminist and didn't want to see the headscarf, "an instrument of women's submission and oppression", in her establishment.
Demiati said: "This niqab debate is such a marginal issue, yet it risks detracting from the real issues in France."