Burqa and citizenship —Rafia Zakaria

To first exclude a minority through racism and xenophobia and then turn around and castigate those same immigrants for the “failure to assimilate” seems like a redundant and malicious policy

On July 16, 2008, the Couseil D’Etat, France’s highest administrative court issued a decision denying French citizenship to 32-year-old Faiza Mabchour. According to the decision her citizenship application was denied because she had “failed to integrate” and because her acquiescence to wear the niqab demonstrated behaviour “incompatible with the essential values of the French community and notably the principle of equality of the sexes”.

Since the Conseil’s decision in the Mabchour case, politicians from the French Left and Right have endorsed the decision lauding it as a “springboard to the emancipation and freedom of women”. Notable among these has been Fadela Amara, an Algerian born minister for urban affairs who called the niqab a means of oppressing women saying: “it’s not an expression of religiosity, but the visible expression of a totalitarian position.”

Emanuelle Prada Bordenave, the Commissioner who issued the decision noted that Faiza Mabchour “lives virtually as a recluse disconnected from French society, she has no conception of laicite (the French principle of secular state), nor the right to vote and she lives in total subservience to the men in her family”

The woman at the centre of the controversy, Faiza Mabchour moved to France in 2000 when she married a Frenchman of Algerian origin. The mother of three attempted to defend her decision to wear the niqab in her immigration application by stating that other immigrants also maintain “ties to their culture of origin”. Both she and her husband admitted to French immigration officials that they were adherents of Salafism.

The refusal of citizenship to Ms Mabchour is the first decision in which a woman has been refused French citizenship based on the charge of “insufficient assimilation”.

While avowed feminists like Fadela Amara are lauding the French state’s activist stance in making a bold statement against the niqab, their pronouncements in the name of feminism fail to see the multidimensional nature of the problem or the larger impact of denial of citizenship on immigrant women in France.

Indeed, if the uplift and emancipation of women is the ultimate purpose that the French state is devoted to, the question that emanates from the particular controversy is how the denial of citizenship to a woman, already known to be oppressed within her family, furthers the project of liberating her?

To be clear, French citizenship, the right to vote and the eligibility to obtain state benefits would have entitled Ms Mabchour to greater rights than those available to her in the legal limbo between non-citizenship and citizenship. It is ironic indeed then that that the denial of citizenship is being painted as a victory for the emancipation of women.

The dynamics of the controversy are instructive because the construction of the debate as a choice between French secular principles that frown on religious expression in the public sphere versus extreme and radical interpretations of Islam which relegate women to an anonymous life behind the niqab eliminates from the conversation the more vexing issues of xenophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice and economic disenfranchisement that also afflict France.

Indeed, painting the fight as a valorous one between progressive French ideals of gender equality and the archaic medieval oppression of the niqab creates a convenient black and white equation where the obvious choice for all who support equality lies neatly with the decisions of the French state.

Yet, as report after report has demonstrated, issues of Islamic extremism and the reticence of France’s Muslims to engage with the larger French society represent a complex melee of systemic economic disenfranchisement of France’s Muslim minority. The geographic ghettoisation of France’s Muslims in economically depressed urban suburbs, the lack of employment opportunities, rampant discrimination against minorities all represent crucial structural issues which are all conveniently swept under the veil controversy.

According to the Annual Report published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia a recent survey carried out in France revealed that a man of Maghrebian origin had only a 36 percent chance of being called to an interview after submitting his resume while a Frenchman (with a French surname) had a 100 percent chance.

A similar study by the International Labour Office carried out in six different French cities revealed that a man with a French last name was preferred over a man of Maghrebian or Black African origin four out of five times. Other reports of discrimination also abound: in one recent case 72 Muslim baggage handlers working at a French airport were summarily fired because they were believed to be a “security risk”. There was no investigation of their background or even the “degree of assimilation” before the determination was made, they were fired simply because their choice of religion was considered too suspicious to warrant continued employment.

The discussion serves to illustrate the complexities of the veiling and niqab issue in the context of Muslim minorities living in Europe. The symbolic terror of the head-to-toe black shroud and the relegation of women to its recesses has in an unfortunate play of rhetoric, become a convenient scapegoat that deflects attention from the many ways in which the French state has failed its immigrants.

While states undoubtedly have a right to mandate and expect loyalties to their founding ideological principles, to first exclude a minority through racism and xenophobia and then turn around and castigate those same immigrants for the “failure to assimilate” seems like a redundant and malicious policy.

Finally, the ultimate tragedy ensconced in the French court’s decision is that it takes a woman it knows to be victimised and then deliberately and purposefully victimises her some more by relegating her to a non-citizen status worthy of even fewer rights.

If Faiza Mabchour was victimised once by an oppressive interpretation of Islam chosen by her husband she was victimised again by the French state, who posturing as supposed champion of female emancipation, failed to see her as worthy of belonging. In measuring “assimilation” in terms of appearance and dress, the French state has created a legal foundation for arbitrarily denying citizenship to all those that fail to satisfy an increasingly narrow conception of French identity while conveniently hiding its incipient problems of xenophobia and immigrant prejudice under convenient symbol of the niqab.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Daily Times, 19/7/2008

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