On July 13, the French National Assembly passed a draft bill banning the hiding of the face. This bill is now before the Senate, which will consider it next autumn.
The initiative of the French parliament was widely commented on by Pakistan’s media. I respect all opinions on the subject, but to all those who have expressed their surprise and incomprehension, I would like to explain why my country, through its elected representatives, showed its opposition to the wearing of the full veil.
Travelling extensively in Pakistan, I have seen women wearing the burqa. I know that it is part of the traditions and culture in certain areas. It is these women’s choice, and I respect it, as every foreigner must, and it is not for me to comment on it. I have been invited by several universities to make presentations in auditoriums where many students wore the niqab. It is their choice. It is not my place to approve or criticise it.
The situation is very different when the burqa and the niqab — generally it is the niqab — are worn in France. Why do people feel uneasy in France when they see a woman with her face completely covered? Simply, because it is in our tradition and in our culture to live in a society where everyone feels the need to see the other person’s face when communicating. The French Republic is about living with an open face. The interaction between all citizens, irrespective of origins, religious beliefs or gender, is of prime necessity. For this reason, women who decide to cover their face exclude themselves from the national community, to live on the fringe of society, and prevent themselves from interacting. They refuse the concept of “living-together” as a society, which hinders their integration. They reject values which are essential to the order and cohesion of our society as well as to the republican pact on which our democracy is based.
For us, what is at stake? The dignity of women, the equality between men and women, along with the necessity to maintain law and order.
It is not an issue between the French and foreigners, since the majority of the 2,000 women wearing the full veil are French.
It is not a strictly French approach, as we witness similar initiatives in neighbouring countries, at the national, provincial or local level.
It is not a religious issue, since Islam, by the very admission of religious scholars, does not impose the full veil. Analysing the future French law as the sign of a growing Islamophobia in France would be a serious misinterpretation. We are home to the largest Muslim community in Europe. France has offered many Muslims a chance to achieve remarkable successes in all fields of public and professional life. Very recently, our prime minister decided to inaugurate a new mosque in a large city near Paris, in order to solemnly highlight the respect of the state for Islam. The groundbreaking ceremony of a big mosque in Marseille, one of the three largest French cities, took place recently: the aim is to provide the Muslim community with a worthy place of prayer.
No, France is not Islamophobic. But we cherish our republican values. Those of a Republic that respects all religions and treats them equally. A Republic that pursues the successful integration of all its citizens, irrespective of their religion. A Republic that cannot accept exclusion.
Pakistan has its laws and traditions. We respect them. In France, we also have laws and rules that govern the relations between all the people living on our soil. These laws and rules are rooted in republican and democratic principles that cannot be separated from our history. Therefore, in France, no one should feel his or her rights and freedom threatened, whatever his or her convictions and beliefs might be. Our Pakistani friends need not be concerned.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2010.
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