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Women protest as French Cabinet gets veil ban bill

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By ELAINE GANLEY

PARIS – One runs her own company, another is a housewife and a third, a divorcee, raises her children by herself. Like nearly 2,000 other Muslim women who freely wear face-covering veils anywhere in France, their lives will soon change and they are worried.

On Wednesday, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie presented a draft law to the Cabinet banning Muslim veils that cover the face, the first formal step in a process to forbid such attire in all public places in France. It calls for euro150 ($185) fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law.

The measure notably creates a new offense, “inciting to hide the face,” and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year in prison and a euro15,000 ($18,555) fine, according to a copy of the text.

“Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told the Cabinet meeting, in remarks released by his office. “There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places.”

Although the Interior Ministry estimates there are only 1,900 women in France who cover their faces with veils, the planned law would be another defining moment for Islam here as the nation tries to bring its Muslim population – at least 5 million, the largest in western Europe – into the mainstream, even by force of law.

The bill is to go before parliament in July, and despite the acrimonious debate that is sure to come, there is little doubt the measure will become law. Sarkozy, who says such veils oppress women, wants a law banning them on the books as soon as possible.

“If the law is voted, I won’t take off my veil. … No one will dictate my way of life” but God, said Najat, a divorcee, who gave her age as “45 plus.” She was one of a half-dozen women who, in a rare move, met with reporters on Tuesday to express their worries about changes they say will impact their lives to the core.

Like others, she refused to give her full name. All said they fear for their safety in an increasingly tense climate. Najat was among those who said she has been increasingly harassed since debate over the planned law began nearly a year ago.

Amnesty International urged French lawmakers to reject the bill. The London-based organization said its expert on discrimination in Europe, John Dalhuisen, believes a complete ban would violate rights to freedom of expression and religion for women who wear the face veils “as an expression of their identity or beliefs.”

A French anti-racism group, MRAP, which opposes such dress, said a law would be “useless and dangerous.”

Sarkozy welcomed the bill, saying the government is embarking on “a just path” and urging parliament to take its “moral responsibility” and approve it.

The final draft text says France’s founding tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity, values that guarantee the “social pact,” are at stake.

The women beg to differ, claiming that France is betraying itself.

“Liberty. Liberty. I’m in France, in the land of liberty, equality, fraternity. I had the impression I was living it,” said Oum Al Khyr, of Montreuil, on the edge of eastern Paris.

The measure, which could be amended once it reaches parliament, foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law and mediate with recalcitrant women who cover their faces, which means it wouldn’t take effect until early in 2011.

A similar veil ban is in the works in neighboring Belgium.

France has already walked this road, banning Muslim headscarves, and other “ostentatious” religious symbols, from classrooms in 2004.

The bespectacled Najat, with a French mother and Moroccan father, said she has covered her face with a veil for 10 years. Najat said that because she is divorced and raising her children alone no one “can say this is imposed on me.”

“I won’t leave” France if the veil is outlawed. “Why should I leave?” Najat said, waving her French passport.

The women predicted that their “sisters,” other women who veil themselves, would hide out in their homes so as not to get caught breaking the law. Several said they would take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if arrested.

With the law, “They are giving people the right to attack us,” said Kenza Drider, of Avignon in the south, who is married with four children. She was the only fully veiled woman to be interviewed by a parliamentary panel during a six-month inquiry.

“To tell a sister you can’t wear this veil is to say you can’t practice your religion,” said Oum Al Khyra.

The bill turns on the “dignity of the person” rather than security issues, as had been widely speculated. It was unclear if that would make it more vulnerable to constitutional attacks.

The French government decided to risk running up against the constitution, despite a warning from the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, which said March 30 that a full ban would likely not pass constitutional muster. It confirmed its “unfavorable opinion” on a general ban in a final report last week, according to the daily Le Figaro.

France’s Muslim leaders have said the face-covering veil is not required by Islam, but have also warned that a ban on the full veil risks stigmatizing all Muslims.

In a country where fashion counts, and is often revealing, there is a visceral reaction among some French to veils that cover women from head to toe and conceal the face, sometimes including the eyes.

Critics of the garb say such dress is an affront to gender equality and undermines the nation’s secular foundations by bringing religion into the streets. Others say the face-covering veil is the gateway to radical Islam.

The six women speaking Tuesday tackled such arguments, saying that their dignity cannot be dictated by the state, that they do not represent a terrorist threat and that secularism should give them the right to practice their religion as they see fit. They correctly note that women make up less than 20 percent of the 577 lawmakers in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

“They say they are going to free us,” said Drider. But “it’s the state who will force us into cloisters. We will have to sue for sequestration.”

Karima, 31, who runs an import-export company, said she has been wearing a burqa-like veil for 16 years – more than half her life, she notes – and “I don’t even know how to take it off.”

Reservations: Dilemmas Galore

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By: Ram Puniyan

Heated debate has been generated around women’s reservation bill (WRB) with both sides having their inflexible positions. On one side there are those calling for its implementation and on the other those who are opposing it. This is a superficial view of debate. As such the debate is, on side are those saying that it should be implemented as it is and on the other side are those who say that there should be quota for OBC dalit, minorities within the quota. There are very few who are totally opposed to WRB, there are many willing to support it if quota within quota is accepted, so to paint them as being against Women’s reservation is unfair. The bill is hanging fire from last one and a half decade, and the rigidity of both sides is so obvious. In democracy it need not be just a brute majority which should work; a process of consensus should be tried before polarizing the issue.

One can very well say it is a bit of the reminder of Mandal days. Many of those opposing Mandal are the strongest champions of this bill while the supporters of Mandal are trying to argue that if implemented in the present form, it will increase the hegemony of upper castes, as the upper caste women are in a better position to compete, while the lower castes and Minorities will be left behind. The supporters of reservation as WRB is, rhetorically dismiss the concern of quota within quota by saying that if these parties are so concerned with that section of women, why have they not given them more seats so far? The same argument can be turned up side down to say that those who are strong proponents of the bill as it is; how much they have bothered to give the tickets to women. By present estimates the three major parties Congress, BJP and Communists, if they would have followed this in allotting more tickets to women, by now the composition of parliament would have been very different.

The point is that, precisely because parties give tickets on winnablity criterion, women are not given tickets in proportion to their percentage in population, and so the need for reservation. The opponents of quota within quota argue that this will divide the women! Question is, are all the women united? The upper caste women, do they supp comfortably with the lower caste? What type of unity of women prevails when a large section of Muslim women have been forced into ghettoes in the aftermath of massive carnage, which in turn has created fear amongst minorities and a situation where they are excluded from social space.

One recalls with pain and horror that during communal violence a section of the women from majority community have been bystanders, if not outright assisters, when the women from minority community were raped! What unity we are talking about? There are surely many concerns which are common to all the women, but in our society unfortunately the caste, class and religion divide has affected the concerns of different sections of women.

The empowerment of women is an absolute must for democratization process of society, so rather than polarizing the debate there is a need to pass the bill with some modifications with a consensus, brought in by taking the concerns of its opponents in present form seriously. Those who oppose the women’s reservations in toto can be bypassed but the opinion of quota within quota is a different terrain.

There is another glaring phenomenon taking place in the society since independence. The representation of Muslims in Parliament is on a constant decline. From last Lok Sabha to the present one there is a reduction, from 36 to current just 29 of them. The present number of Muslim MPs is close to half of what it was in the initial period of the republic. One welcomes the move to ensure the improvement of empowerment of women, but what about declining representation of Muslim minority? One is sure with present social dynamics it is going to slide down further. Is it a sign of health of democracy or does it indicate that democratic process is being subverted from deep within the system by the communalization of society.

At another level one can safely talk about the reservation for dalits, OBC’s and women, but when it comes to the question of Muslim minorities; all the antennas are up to sense that it is dividing the nation. What in fact is dividing the nation is the regular occurrence of violence against minorities, what is dividing the nation is the ghettoisation of minorities and the constant propaganda demonizing them on one pretext or the other.

It is in this context that the Judgment of Supreme Court restoring the Andhra Pradesh law for 4 percent quota for backward Muslims in Jobs and colleges is most welcome. We are going through delicate times when there is some superficial concern shown for minorities, Sachar Committee is appointed, Rangnath Mishra Commission is appointed, but the rulers get cold feet when their recommendation are to be implemented. Rangnath Mishra Commission recommends 15% reservation for Muslims, but not much is being heard on this front.

Most hypocritical stance on the issue of reservation has been that of BJP. It has been the constant opponent of reservations for dalits and OBCs on the ground that this is discriminatory, and due to this the meritorious candidates will be left behind. During the speech in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitly of BJP (March 09, 2010) while defending the WRB, stated that it is a myth that reservation creates privileged society. He also said that with WRB politics of tokenism will be replaced by that of representation. Sane words. Only thing is there are double standards in this. So far we heard something totally contrary from BJP worthies as far as reservations were concerned.

Unfortunately the reservation has to be resorted to in our democracy as the proper democratic process has failed to take care of the needs of deprived sections of society. A holistic approach to reservation to all sections of deprived communities is what we need and that’s what will ensure that the gross disparities are done away and justice reaches to all section of society.

Written by rohitkumarsviews

April 8, 2010 at 6:23 am