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Originally published October 5, 2011 at 5:00 PM | Page modified October 5, 2011 at 5:03 PM

Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Rethinking France's burqa ban

France has banned the public wearing of face-hiding burqas and niqabs. After traveling there for a fellowship project, Times editorial columnist Joni Balter has changed her mind about earlier opposition to the ban, concluding it is too much a barrier.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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PARIS — I was against the French ban on full-faced veils before I was for it.

If that sounds like a mushy effort to have it both ways, it's not. I changed my mind after spending time in the first European country to ban the traditional religious garb in public places.

Plenty of Muslim women here wear headscarves — you can see the face and eyes — but the French banned the public wearing of face-hiding burqas and niqabs.

Certainly, in a perfect world, women of all religious faiths would be able to express their religious beliefs wherever they are.

That drove one of my recent editorials against the ban months ago. I blamed the monochromatic nature of France for its jitters about the veils.

But a reporting fellowship to France and numerous interviews convinced me otherwise. First of all, with 5 million Muslims, likely the largest population in Europe, this country is more of a melting pot than people realize. France these days is in a pitched battle for its soul.

The country has a rule of law that imposes strict separation of church and state. It's deeply embedded in French culture and supposedly is imposed fairly. The French do not allow big crosses or other overt expressions of religion in public either. Considering the overbearing religiosity that seeps far too often into American public life and politics, I rather like it.

America also has separation of church and state, though it's sometimes hard to tell. The Constitution would never allow a ban in the U.S. because of its obvious interference with freedom of religious expression.

The laws of France work for France. What's more, any feminist must realize the wearing of the burqa and niqab is something only women do. It may be grounded in centuries of tradition, but it's blatantly sexist.

Muslim guys prance around Paris in super-tight jeans and slinky shirts. Why support something that only limits activities of women? That's hard to support. Plenty of Muslims don't.

Salem Belgourch, 25, a highly educated first-generation Frenchman, whose family comes from Morocco, told me his mother does not favor the burqa and niqab.

"My mother, a Muslim woman, thinks it is a bad tradition," said Belgourch. "It's not a Muslim obligation to not have communication with other people. My mom, we came into this country, she says, 'We have to respect the law, We don't have to come with our way of life.' "

His family bought into the idea that assimilation is best, not to wash away one's tradition, but to adapt to a new country's laws and culture so newcomers and their children succeed.

Emmanuel Barbe, the French deputy secretary-general of European affairs, said the veil ban was tricky at first but now there is considerable national support for it: "It's something only women are obliged to do so it is contrary to the fundamental principles of the Republic."

Some experts raise a troubling question: If a Muslim man is not willing to allow his wife to be seen in public without a veil, why would he let his wife out at all?

How about when that Muslim man needs groceries or someone to take the children to school or go to work at their own jobs?

Like so many immigration and integration debates in Europe, the battle over the burqa and niqab is loaded with other questions. Does Europe need — can it manage — so many immigrants? What is the responsibility of immigrants who seek asylum and inevitable government aid?

Many Muslim women wear the burqa and niqab because they want to. So who is France to tell them what is good for them? Reasonable questions.

Women and men moving to new countries need all the help they can get learning the language and adapting to their new country.

This is not about picking on Muslims. As many politicians and observers have said, the full-faced veil is too much a barrier. It stands squarely in the way of communication and long-term success in France and Belgium, which both have banned the face-hiding veils. The Netherlands and perhaps Switzerland may be next.

Joni Balter is the 2011 journalist fellow of the European Union Center of Excellence at the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies. Her columns appear regularly on the editorial pages of The Times. He email address is jbalter@seattletimes.com




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