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Where Are the Burqas France Wants to Ban?

Debate continues in France about whether or not to ban the concealing garment. But is anyone even wearing it?

PARIS, Jul 6 (IPS) - There was not a burqa in sight. On the bustling streets around Boulevard de Belleville, in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods here, women wore a variety of clothing, including summer dresses, jeans, chadors, headscarves and traditional African dress, but no burqas.

A trader laughed when asked if he had any burqas - the Islamic garment that covers the whole body leaving just slits for the eyes.

"Yes, I have some in stock but I've never sold one," he told IPS. "I swear I have yet to sell a burqa in four years. So where is the burqa that they want to ban? "

French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last month that the burqa has no place in France, and that its spread must be curtailed.

"The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory," Sarkozy told a group of lawmakers in a speech in Versailles Jun. 22.

Some legislators had expressed concern that an increasing number of women were wearing the garment, perhaps not from choice but because of pressure from religious fundamentalists, and they urged parliament to act.

With the government now studying ways to stop the burqa's reach, including a possible ban, Sarkozy's comments have led not just to heated public debate but to a response from a group calling itself the North African affiliate of Al- Qaeda. The group said on Islamic websites that the French position is a war on Muslim women, and that there will be retaliation.

France now says it is on guard against terrorism, but many French citizens see the whole issue as unnecessary commotion, and even as an attempt to divert people's attention from the economic crisis.

"In the past eight years, I've seen maybe one woman wearing a burqa, and I work in an immigrant district," said a French social worker who asked not to be named.

"I think the government is trying to create a problem where none exists. They want to get our minds off the financial crisis, so they say 'let's talk about the burqa'. They didn't know we'd have Michael Jackson to talk about."

France is home to about five million Muslims, Western Europe's largest Islamic population. Tensions have long existed between the community and the French authorities, and the new controversy could widen divisions.

"Any prohibition by the State will be counter-productive, and put women in an even weaker position than they already are when they are forced to wear the burqa or the niqab," says Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of the French arm of Human Rights Watch.

"This will be a limitation of freedom of expression and freedom of belief because we know that certain women are wearing these garments by choice," Fardeau told IPS. "It's also a prohibition that would target only Muslim women, and this would be discriminatory both on the gender perspective and the religious perspective. It's not up to the State to make a decision for women."

Journalists have been descending on multi-ethnic neighbourhoods to discover what Muslims think about the burqa, much to the bemusement and sometimes irritation of the residents.

"It's all political propaganda," says Hafnaoui, manager of a shop selling Islamic movies, books and clothing. "France has a problem with Islam as soon as the religion is visible. They want to turn people's attention from national problems, so they have to find a common enemy. They always need to find something."

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