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Veils and Burqas in France and Turkey

By K Gajendra Singh

23 June, 2009


Following a policy statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the wearing of the burka - a garment covering women from head to toe - by Muslim women in France and a decision to establish a parliamentary commission to look into whether to ban it or not in public, Indian TV channels CNN_IBN and NDTV organized debates , with one Sadia Delhvi in both discussions .As usual the participants were unprepared and ill informed .Madhu Kishwar showed some common sense .They could have googled for information.

In 2004, France banned the Islamic headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, triggering heated debate in the country and abroad. This had upset Sikhs whose children could not wear turbans to schools .

I had then done a piece , given below ,on the banning of veils in France and Turkey , having been posted in both the countries.

If the idea is to cover up the body, then some of the undulating heaps , faces peeping out are more stimulating than ladies in Club Mediterranee or erotic gyrations by Bollywood prima donnas.

Although the custom of covering women with head scarves is now generally associated with Islamic societies, the practice predates Islamic culture by many millennia. Veiling and seclusion were marks of prestige and status symbols in the Assyrian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine empires, as well as in Sasanian Iran. The Muslim Umayyads copied it from the Byzantines in Damascus, which they took over lock stock and barrel. According to one tradition, the Prophet Mohammad's wife Aisha did not veil her face. Generally, there was greater freedom for women among nomadic Arabs, Turks and Mongols before Islam. 

"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," Mr Sarkozy told a special session of parliament in Versailles , a first by a French president since the 19th century - made possible by a constitutional amendment he introduced last year.

"That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity. The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," the French president said.”

But Sarcozy stressed that France "must not fight the wrong battle", saying that "the Muslim religion must be respected as much as other religions" in the country. Photographs of his wife , Carla Bruni ,a former super model in birthday suites are easily accessible on the internet

A group of a cross-party lawmakers is already calling for a special inquiry into whether Muslim women who wear the burka is undermining French secularism. The lawmakers also want to examine whether women who wear the veil are doing so voluntarily or are being forced to cover themselves, as happens in many Muslim countries (brothers shave sister’s heads).

In 2004, France banned the Islamic headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, triggering heated debate in the country and abroad.

Members of the French government have been divided over the issue. The immigration minister, Eric Besson, has said a full ban will only "create tensions" while the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said she would accept a ban if it was aimed at protecting women forced to wear the burka. The decision is a response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France.

France's official Muslim council has criticised the debate. "To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatising Islam and the Muslims of France," said Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion. But the special inquiry does have the backing of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and a former head of the Muslim council, who insists that Islam in France should be an "open and convivial Islam that allows people to live side by side".

He fears that anecdotal evidence that more women are wearing the burka in France is linked to an "excess, a radicalisation" among some Muslims.

France has over five million Muslims , migrants from its former colonies of Algeria,Tunisia ,Morocco ,Senegal, Mali ,Cote d’Evoire etc.

President Sarkozy's comments are in response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France. Mr Gerin believes the burka "amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory".

Is the spread is indicative of a radicalisation of Islam and whether women are being forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily, and whether wearing the burka undermines French secularism.

The concept of secularism or "laicite" is sacred in France ( and Turkey!). The separation of church and state is jealously guarded by everyone from school teachers to government ministers - and the constitution states the republic "does not recognise, subsidise or remunerate any religious body".

It underpinned the French Revolution, and has been a basic tenet of the country's progressive thought since the 18th century when French Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant.

India with a secular constitution encourages all religions and gets into scrapes .Muslims’ Hajj pilgrimages are subsidized .Ministers show religious bias and routinely visit temples ,mosques, Churches and Gurudwaras , specially around election time . Indian secularism like laicism has not evolved as in France and Turkey – a result of fight against excesses of religion .It does not have a rational construct and remains vague .Only a few days ago a leader of a religious party BJP Jaswant Singh was wondering what ,’Hindutva’ means , when in promoting it LK Advani helped demolish a mosque ,triggering Muslim Hindu riots and adding another schism in polity.

Incidentally , since I wrote the article ,the wife of the Islamist Turkish President Abdullah Gul adorns a turban in the Palace where lived Kemal Ataturk. His soul must be rolling over in anger and disbelief .The secular establishment led by the military and the judiciary have still not reconciled to this religious symbolism.

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Lifting the veil in France, and Turkey

By K Gajendra Singh

16 September, 2004

 "Some people think of the veil as erotic and romantic, others perceive it as a symbol of oppression, still others consider it a sign of piety, modesty or purity. It has become so ubiquitous that everyone seems to have formed an opinion about it. The various connotations it has, the many emotions it arouses, testify to its continuing, perhaps even growing, significance in the modern world."

- Dr Faegheh Shirazi, an Iranian professor at the University of Texas, Austin

Paris was hopeful until last weekend of two French journalists, Christian Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International, taken hostage in Iraq on August 20, being freed soon. Since then there has been little good or firm news. The journalists were seized between Baghdad and Najaf, by a little-known militant group, the Islamic Army of Iraq, which demanded that France revoke its ban on Islamic head scarves (hijab) in schools, a move they described as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms".

To begin with, the kidnapping and threat to behead the journalists came as a rude shock to the establishment in Paris, especially in the light of France's vociferous opposition to the US invasion of Iraq last year and a supportive stand on the question of Palestine. France was further dismayed when early last week the kidnappers suddenly demanded a US$5 million ransom for the release, called for a truce with Osama bin Laden and no military or commercial deals with Iraq, although France was not named specifically. There was some doubt about the authenticity and the exact nature of the demands. But the French government faced the dilemma of what to do next. They have reiterated that as far as they know the journalists are safe, and expressed cautious optimism about their release. And on September 2, the law on head scarves went into force.

Last week, Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were kidnapped, with the demand that Italy pull out its 2,700 troops from Iraq. The kidnappings triggered big demonstrations in Rome and Paris amid national outpourings of concern. This week, two Australian security contractors became the latest foreigners to be kidnapped in Iraq. In a statement a group calling itself the Islamic Secret Army said it would execute both men "without a second chance" unless their government pulled its troops out of Iraq within 24 hours. Meanwhile, Italy launched a fresh diplomatic drive to save the lives of its nationals, with Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in Kuwait on the first leg of a Middle East tour.

Nearly 100 hostages from dozens of countries have been seized in the past five months in Iraq, and more than 20 have been killed, as part of a campaign to undermine Iraq's US-appointed government. Of five Italians kidnapped, two, including a journalist, have been killed. "These are opportunistic people looking for any target," said Olivier Roy, a prominent French scholar of Islam. "They don't care about Iraq. They are striking at the West as a whole."

While most Arab columnists called for the release of hostages, a few have criticized the media for double standards adopted with relation to Arabs and Muslims - mass mobilization for the release of French journalists, for instance, but disregard of the abduction and murder of other nationals, notably 12 Nepalis slain by kidnappers in Iraq. And some in the Israeli and US media are gloating at the French discomfiture. Business Week commented, "France's political capital in the Middle East may be more rhetorical than real. For all their influence, the French failed to secure the swift release of the journalists. The Gaullist notions of enjoying the support of the 'Arab street' are also looking exaggerated."

Bertrand Badie, a specialist on international relations at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, thinks Paris is trying to capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. "This is legitimizing non-state actors and officially associating them in diplomatic activity," says Badie. "It's a risk."

In his column in London's Arabic-language daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Ahmad al-Rab'i wrote, "The abduction of the French journalists is a lesson for those who think they can be neutral in the war on terror, or for those who think that it is possible to arrive at a truce with international terror by means of spineless political positions towards terrorism."

Some unusual light was thrown on events in an unsigned editorial in Jordan's daily newspaper al-Rai, which claimed that "the American and British intelligence services were behind the kidnapping of two French journalists". It added that "Washington has not forgotten to make the French pay for their principled stand" against the invasion of Iraq. Al-Rai pointed to the appeals for the release of the Frenchmen by "all the Islamic, political and religious organizations, but they have not yet been released, because we all know it means nothing to the CIA [US Central Intelligence Agency] or the British intelligence". In the event the journalists were killed, "then France should look for the killers in the corridors of the American and British intelligence services". Amman has good links inside Iraq and this report is not without weight.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has visited Jordan, Qatar and Egypt to rally support from Arab and Muslim leaders for the release of the hostages. The French secured condemnation of the hostage-takers from across the whole of the Arab and Islamic world leadership - even from Iraq's Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

A senior Iraqi cleric with influence among extremist Sunni Muslim groups, Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumaidaie, said on September 5 that a US raid the previous day on the town of Latifiya had "disrupted the process of their release". The cleric also issued a fatwa (decree) "urging the group to immediately free and not harm the two French reporters, in recognition of France's position on Iraq". The French-Iraqi Friendship Association on Monday confirmed the report and accused US forces of endangering the lives of the journalists by launching military operations.

Scarf ban stays

Despite the hostage crisis, France has enforced the law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols from public schools. It was generally peacefully implemented, with a nationwide show of unity including Muslims, against the militants' demands. The head scarf is normally worn in schools, especially in poorer areas, by Muslim girls. French Muslims, mostly from former colonies in Arab northwest Africa, the Maghrab, number about 5 million. Many Sikh students wearing patka (head scarves) were also not allowed to enter classes in Paris on September 2. Sikh community leaders have taken up the matter with the authorities.

Before the kidnapping of the Frenchmen there was widespread agitation and demonstrations all over France against the ban on head scarves, along with other religious symbols, such as Jewish and Muslim skull caps or prominent Christian crosses. The bans were placed to assert the secular principles of the republic and also to deal with extreme right-wing opposition to such dress.

In mid-July, some 250 delegates from 14 countries gathered at London's City Hall under the banner of a pro-hijab pressure group to campaign over what they see as human-rights violations in France and elsewhere. London's outspoken mayor Ken Livingstone said, "The French ban is the most reactionary proposal to be considered by any parliament in Europe since the Second World War. It marks a move towards religious intolerance which we in Europe swore never to repeat, having witnessed the devastating effects of the Holocaust." The conference was picketed by gay-rights activists against participation by the Muslim theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is opposed to the ban, as he himself is charged with being a homophobe and one who tramples on the rights of women. British Jews entered a formal complaint to the police against the theologian, who has condoned some suicide bombings.

Instead of dividing France, which the kidnappers had hoped, the French elite - intellectuals, journalists, religious leaders and the bulk of the French Muslim community joined forces with the center-right government to tell the abductors of the two journalists to stay out of France's affairs.

Mohamed Bechari, of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, who led a delegation to Baghdad to lobby for the hostages' release, underlined that "the political battle, a purely French one, for religious freedom will resume later on. France is not at war with the Islamic faith." Given the sensitivity of the debate, many Muslim organizations which had previously campaigned against the law called for calm. They were keen to avoid intensifying French antipathy to the country's Muslims by appearing to sympathize with the demands of the extremists.

And if the kidnappers thought that they had struck a chord with their co-religionists, they were wrong, which only exposes the naive thinking of ill-informed Muslim radicals. Islam is not what it was during the Prophet Mohammad's time. It has changed. It has become richer and more sophisticated. If it had not changed with times, there would not have been Iranian, Turkish, Moghul and other kingdoms and empires. It is a moot point whether the conquest of Mecca and Medina by the Ottomans brought with it the heavy Islamic conservative establishment which led to the decline of the empire. The conservative establishment, including the Janissaries, opposed modernization by the Ottoman government, even in matters of war. Kemal Ataturk just jettisoned the whole Islamic and Arab baggage.

French debate on the ban

The law to ban head scarves was enacted following a December, 2003 report on church-state relations in France, which recommended a ban on "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools, including head scarves worn by Muslim girls, yarmulkes worn by Jewish boys and large crosses worn by Christians. The report, which suggested other measures to reiterate France's fiercely secular constitution, was written by a 20-member commission made up of religious leaders, teachers, politicians and sociologists. It said that the 1905 law that codified the strict separation of church and state was no longer adequate given the cultural and religious composition of present-day France. The report charged, for example, that organized groups were testing the secular French state by demands on public services in the name of religion and pressuring Muslims to identify first with their faith and then with their citizenship.

A ruling in 1989 by France's Council of State that religious symbols could not be worn in public schools if they constituted "an act of intimidation, provocation, proselytizing or propaganda, threatened health, security or the freedom of others, or disturbed order" was modified three years later, leaving much discretion to the schools.

Before the hostage crisis, debate over the ban was lively and split the nation. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote an article in the Sunday Times headlined "Off with their head scarves". He spoke of the veil as a "symbol of hatred" and associated it with fanaticism and fundamentalism. Some prominent Muslims supported the law as a way of promoting integration. Anti-racism organizations stressed the value of secularism in schools, and feminist groups agreed with the ban against a symbol of repression.

Others saw it as an example of religious intolerance, an abuse of human rights and an attack on the Muslim identity. A Muslim feminist said that wearing the hijab was a personal part of her religious practice. However, if forced to wear the hijab, the woman's intentions would not be true, rendering the practice meaningless. "Choice is the essence of the act - it is an act of faith; it is about being an independent woman responsible for her actions and conduct; it is a reflection of a woman's modesty."

Others said that the secularist arguments behind the ban in France amounted to nothing more than a denial of freedom of expression and choice. Those who look on the hijab with disdain will now feel at liberty to abuse those who wear it, given that the state legitimizes their feelings. This state oppression could alienate the Muslim population in France and result in Muslim women being stigmatized. Secular fundamentalism is as abhorrent as religious extremism. Incidentally, according to a poll of France's Muslims last year in the newspaper Le Figaro, 55% were opposed to the ban on head scarves for girls in schools.

Last year, when Nicolas Sarkozy, an aspirant for the presidency, then interior minister, told a meeting of Muslims that people should be bare-headed when posing for identity photographs, he was booed. The minister was speaking at a meeting of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France in a Paris suburb, "The law says that on the photo for identity cards the person must be bare-headed, whether it is a man or a woman ... There is no reason why Muslim women should not respect this."

To a liberal it might initially seem a matter of respecting individual rights to wear what one wants to. But the problem is not that simple. Agence France Presse reported that those who opposed the ban were being duplicitous and wanted to impose their views on Muslim women - their ultimate goal being the destruction of the liberal-democratic state itself:

"Those who appealed in public to the doctrine of universal human rights ... in private use the traditional male dominance of their culture - including the threat of violence - to impose their views on others in the name of Holy Writ. After all, in some giant housing projects around Paris and other French cities, young Muslim women who dress in Western clothing are deemed to be fair game, inviting - indeed, asking for - rape by gangs of Muslim youths. In such circumstances, it is impossible to know whether the adoption of Islamic dress by women in Western society is ever truly voluntary, and so long as such behavior persists, the presumption must be against it being so."

Thus, Islamic extremists want to use secularism to impose theocracy. Similar complaints have been made in Turkey, Jordan and other Muslim countries. Where women are allowed to wear head scarves, the militant Islamists identify any woman who does not wear and not obey the rules the Islamists think women should, become objects of attack. Even assaults including rape and disfiguring with chemicals are common in some Islamic societies.

Debate in Turkey, too

At the other end of the European continent, secular Turkey has been down the road of banning religious dress. Ottoman and Islamic dresses, including head scarves, have been forbidden in public places since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk abolished the caliphate, closed religious seminaries, converted the Mosque Aaya Sofya into a museum, banned Islamic dress, including the Turkish fez, veil or hijab, including the head scarf.

Opposition to the ban, earlier led by a small minority, is now being spearheaded by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots. It formed the government after receiving a massive two-thirds majority in parliament (but with only 35% of the votes polled ) in November, 2002 elections. In Turkey, the secular establishment, led by the armed forces and the judiciary, has in the past severely punished attempts to introduce any Islamic symbols into public life. The renewed battle between the secular establishment and the AKP created a lot of tension, but with serious problems facing the country after the US-led invasion of Iraq, a truce was called.

In June this year a seven-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a petition by a Turkish medical student who was banned in 1998 from wearing a head scarf by Istanbul University. The student had claimed that the ban during classes violated her rights of freedom of thought, conscience and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court found that the rules in medical classes were "necessary", primarily for hygienic reasons, and the students "were required to comply with the rules on dress". It "found no violation" under the convention, adding schools were entitled to set dress codes as long as they were fair. However, in a 46-page report, Human Rights Watch said the ban "inhibits academic freedom", adding the government exercised too much control over schools. The ban stays, though.

In mid 2000, a Turkish court sentenced 23-year-old Nuray Bezirgan to six months in jail for "obstructing the education of others" for wearing a head scarf for her college final exams, which led to disturbances. Teachers and government employees are barred from wearing head scarves. Since 1998, tens of thousands of women have been barred from Turkey's college campuses for wearing head scarves as part of Muslim tradition, according to human-rights groups. Hundreds of government employees have been fired, demoted or transferred for the same reason.

In 1999, a parliamentary deputy was forbidden from taking her oath of office when she arrived at the Grand National Assembly wearing a head scarf. From 2000, the ban was also imposed in Islamic religious schools, prompting some Muslim girls to drop out. But great ingenuity is used at times. When the government barred women from wearing head scarves in photographs for driving licenses, passports and university enrollment documents, digital camera technology was used to doctor women's photographs with fake hair.

The scarf issue remains the object of one of Turkey's most divisive struggles, political and religious, and also a problem of how to balance greater democratic freedoms while preserving a secular state. The Turkish military believes that Islamic fundamentalism is one of Turkey's greatest national security threats and feels that "if we are not careful about political Islam, it will lead Turkey to a new Dark Age". A fiercely secularist establishment led by the military has in the past drawn criticism from human-rights groups about the means used in opposing the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism.

But now the fight is led by the Justice and Development Party. The first battlelines between the two sides were drawn on April 23 of last year when President Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court, and the top military brass, led by General Hilmi Ozkok, refused to attend a reception at Parliament House hosted by its Speaker, Bulent Arinc of the AKP, to mark National Sovereignty and Children's Day, because the hostess, Munnever Arinc, planned to wear a Muslim head scarf. The opposition, the left-of-center People's Republican Party (RPP), also boycotted the reception. A last-minute announcement that Mrs Arinc would not attend the reception came too late.

The wives of AKP leaders like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (even when he was the mayor of Istanbul), Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and others avoid attending state functions as they would have to do so with uncovered heads. Erdogan's daughter and those of a few other AKP leaders study in the US, where they can wear head scarves. The importance of fights over Islamic symbols cannot be underestimated. The military and secular elite take close note of attempts by AKP members to use Islamic symbols.

On April 30 of last year a statement issued after a meeting of Turkey's powerful National Security Council (NSC) underlined secularism as one of the basic pillars of the Turkish Republic. Reiterating that its "vigilant protection cannot be over-emphasized", it urged the AKP government to protect the secular state. The NSC was Turkey's highest policy-making body and is composed of the chief of general staff (CGS) of the armed forces and top military commanders, the prime minister and his senior colleagues and is chaired by the president of the republic. The CGS is next in protocol after the prime minister and forms one of the three centers of power, along with the president.

In 1997, Turkey's first-ever Islamist prime minister, Najemettin Erbakan, then heading a coalition government with a secular party, was made to resign by the armed forces for his failure to curb growing Islamic fundamentalism. In 1971, the military members of the NSC forced premier Suleiman Demirel to resign for his failure to implement land and other radical reforms and curb left-right strife. The military also intervened directly in politics in 1960 and 1980, when politicians had brought the country to an impasse.

But the AKP government has taken advantage of one of the requirements of the Copenhagen criteria drawn up to bring Turkey's constitution in line with that of the Europe Union (EU) , which Ankara is preparing to join. The reforms reduced the military's hold over the NSC by making it an advisory body with no executive powers. The number of times that the council meets is now limited, and a civilian now heads its secretariat, rather than a general. Not surprisingly, the armed forces were unhappy with the reform package, and according to many are awaiting their chance to get even.

The battle between the secular establishment and the AKP will go on. But the government has for the time being slowed down its plans to change academic orientation by reshaping the university system, to grant women the right to wear head scarves in schools and public buildings, to limit the army's power to expel soldiers accused of religious extremism. Many a time, laws passed by brute AKP majority are not approved by the president.

Certainly, Turkish society is becoming more Islamic. While 90% of Turks opposed Ankara allowing US troops to use Turkish soil to attack Iraq, the military was in favor from a strategic angle. The military is fighting a rearguard action. Turkey is also trying to become a member of the EU, which has support from a majority of the Turks. Would France welcome Turkey with its women wearing head scarves? In Turkey women are regularly killed by near relatives in so called honor killings, ie because of illicit relationships or infraction of social codes. The AKP government was thinking of making adultery a crime in law, which has raised heckles all around the country and woule likely jeopardize Turkey's chances for entry into the EU, however the plan has apparantly been shelved.

While in France it is basically a Muslim minority which is against the ban, in Turkey perhaps a majority (led by the male population, other than in the big cities) might favor head scarves. While Ataturk might have put the Turks in trousers and jackets, the thinking, especially in the countryside, is still conservative.

Only as a part of Turkey's drive to bring its laws on a par with the EU's, in early 2002, revolutionary changes were enacted in the family law code, declaring women and men equal in marriage and giving women equal rights in divorce and property ownership. In spite of the excesses of the secular establishment, the military is still a guarantor of the secular state. There is always a danger of reforms being eroded and being swept away slowly. And should the AKP face losing its massive majority, in competitive party politics, it is bound to use the Islamic card.

Although the custom of covering women with head scarves is now generally associated with Islamic societies, the practice predates Islamic culture by many millennia. Veiling and seclusion were marks of prestige and status symbols in the Assyrian, Greco-Roman and Byzantine empires, as well as in Sasanian Iran. The Muslim Umayyads copied it from the Byzantines in Damascus, which they took over lock stock and barrel. According to one tradition, the Prophet Mohammad's wife Aisha did not veil her face. Generally, there was greater freedom for women among nomadic Arabs, Turks and Mongols before Islam.

But in recent history, the veil or hijab has been used to make political statements, as in Muslim countries such as Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, and where Muslims are in a minority, as in France today.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Email

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.)

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