In land of few burqas, France debates a ban
France's proposed burqa ban is seen by many as a way to raise the issue of Islam in a secular society where religious identity is not a public subject. The bill is expected to pass.
As the French lawmakers tonight begin a debate to ban the burqa or veil worn by some Muslim women, it is time to visit Goutte d'Or, the North African heart of Paris.Skip to next paragraph
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The area in the 18th district has open markets for regional delicacies and is the place to buy garments for a Muslim wedding. Sidewalks are crowded, though not with tourists. On a Friday afternoon, two mosques fill three streets with overflow worshipers. Young men move in bunches, and blacks and Arab French mill outside cheap overseas call centers, busy hair boutiques, storefront import-export firms, and shops closed a long time.
It's a working-class area with not enough work. Some traditional French also live there.
In late June, Goutte d'Or attracted TV trucks when far-right nationalists put out a call for a Friday "sausage and wine" protest party. So Islamic had the place become, that pork and alcohol were supposedly not sold here. The provocative "party" was banned by police and moved.
The momentary madness revealed again a wide gap between traditional France and "another France." The French mainstream is slow in acknowledging the scope of the other France – one not assimilating well, whose youths are not welcomed into jobs. The cumulative unease is often lumped into the word "Islam," in a pushback to affirm traditional identity.
The hot topic in France
The proposed law to ban the burqa in all public spaces is part of that pushback. For 11 months, the burqa ban has been the hot political topic here; Belgium has adopted a burqa ban, and Spain is preparing one. Here, the burqa debate goes until July 13, and is then taken up by the Senate. If passed, as it is expected to, the ban would mark a significant milestone for the 4 million Muslims in France.
Yet in the No. 1 North African quarter in Paris, a good burqa is hard to find. After traipsing back streets and lurking near mosques, this reporter saw none. A return trip came up goose eggs. The guard at the women's entrance to the El-Fath Mosque, which is mainly attended by African Muslims, says that of 100 women, maybe two wear burqas.
Observers say the burqa ban is in fact a virtual issue – a way to raise Islam in a secular society where religious identity is not a public subject. The burqa allows talk of French culture, the future of Europe, growing minorities, the rights of the individual, security, feminism, and citizenship – all with an Islamic subtext. "Seventy percent of the talk about 'national identity' in France is aimed at Islam," says Kouyate Madony, the Malian proprietor of a dress shop halfway between the two mosques in Barbès. "It's election politics."