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PARIS (RNS) Five years after France banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools, the government has launched a probe into another Muslim garment — all-covering burqas or niqabs — that may lead to a similar injunction in public spaces.
In July, a 32-member parliamentary commission will begin a six-month investigation into the burqa in France — particularly whether it clashes with the country’s fiercely secular creed and violates the dignity of the women who wear it.
The burqa or niqab — head-to-toe coverings that hide the face except for a narrow slit for the eyes — are rarities on French streets.
No estimates exist about how many women wear them.
Nonetheless, the issue has sparked hot debate, dividing not only the center-right government but also France’s estimated 5 to 6 million-strong Muslim community, Europe’s largest.
On Monday (June 22), President Nicolas Sarkozy waded into the fray, saying burqas are “not welcome” in France.
“We cannot accept in our country women who are prisoners behind a grill, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” Sarkozy said in a speech at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
A number of French politicians, including Cities’ Minister Fadela Amara — a Muslim woman of Algerian background — are similarly opposed to it. But Immigration Minister Eric Besson has come out against a ban, arguing it would create unnecessary tensions.
The matter has divided Muslims as well. Several prominent leaders have spoken out against the burqa. But Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, warned that banning the garment — or even forming a commission to study it — risked stigmatizing the Muslim community.
“I am not for women wearing the burqa,” Moussaoui said in an interview published Wednesday in Le Paisien/Aujourdhui en France. But a ban, he said, “risked being counterproductive.”
Fears of stigmatizing Muslims also spiked in 2004, when the government banned students from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols to public schools. While the legislation also covered skull caps and large crosses, much of the protests flared over the headscarves.
By Elizabeth Bryant
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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