In Venissieux, a downtrodden suburb of Lyon, and Fadela, 23, is walking around covered from head to toe in a black niqab (headbag). A police car passes but does not stop. Fadela says that’s not unusual. “This is a sensitive neighbourhood,” she surmised. “It’d be a problem for the police.” (It won’t be a problem with Marine LePen as president)
The Star In fact, Fadela, who agreed to be interviewed on condition her real name not be used, said police have never told her to uncover her face. Nearly one year after France implemented its controversial ban on wearing the Islamic veil— a niqab or burka — in public, a surprising fact has emerged. It appears that few women have actually removed their veils to obey the law.
As the presidential election in France approaches, and Islam and Muslim integration are top of mind, critics say the law was an exercise in pleasing the electorate, in “marketing,” while further stigmatizing Muslims. It didn’t take a visitor to the Les Minguettes neighbourhood of Vénissieux long to observe the widespread non-compliance.
Upon emerging from the subway at Vénissieux station, a niqab-wearing woman walked in from the opposite direction, accompanied by a man. On the tram platform outside, two niqab-wearers waited, chatting. And in Les Minguettes, they were not the norm, but neither were they hard to find.
Vénissieux is the place where the idea for the law first originated, with André Gérin, then the Communist mayor and soon-to-be-retired National Assembly member. Gérin disputed French government numbers that 2,000 women in the country wore niqabs. With so many in his community alone, he thought there were many more. He saw Islamic extremism at work and thought women’s rights were at risk.
He called niqabs the “tip of the iceberg” of Islamic extremism. Before the law went into effect on April 11, 2011, aggressive men were yelling at government clerks who demanded a woman identify herself, he said. Women were refusing to be examined by male doctors. Behind the veil, he said, there are often “young women living a life of hell.” All of which, he added, is “in contradiction with our culture.”
According to numbers compiled by the union of police chiefs, the SCPN, there have been 335 people taken in for questioning by the police. About 300 have been issued fines, which top out at 150 euros (about $200).
“It means they are refusing to remove the veil,” said Emmanuel Roux, the union’s deputy secretary general. “It’s false to say the law has resolved the problem. The proof is that we have more than 300 people in contact with the police.”
For Roux, “This is not a police problem. We are the end of the law, on the ground, in contact with the people. But this is a problem of integration, of pedagogy, sociology, and acculturation.” “It means there is a law but no one applies it,” said the government official in Les Minguettes.
Given the controversial and political nature of the law, however, it can be a touchy affair for police. Last December in Evry, a town south of Paris, two officers were slightly injured when a group of young men intervened as they tried to fine a woman in a niqab.
Les Minguettes is not just ground zero for the niqab debate in France, it’s also infamous in France as the place where the first “banlieue” riots broke out in the 1980s. Banlieues are synonymous with the poor suburbs tilted heavy with what are called as people of “(mostly muslim immigrant extraction.”
In France, the law prohibits statistics based on race, and so while nobody knows what percentage of the population is of immigrant extraction, some say it’s up to 80 per cent.
The law also stipulates a heavy fine, even jail time, for a man who forces his wife or a minor, and none have been prosecuted thus far, he notes. “The law is to please the French people, and to make Muslims afraid.”.
In Les Minguettes, one woman says she knows of several others who have left France for their home countries because of the law.
For Fadela, “it’s an obligation,” in Islam. “If she doesn’t wear it, it’s like she is naked,” her friend Najet, 22, interjected. However, just a few days ago she was ordered to remove her veil at Lyon’s main airport, and when she put it back on afterwards, she was “chased and screamed at” by personnel there. They recorded her name and let her go.