Home to an estimated six million Muslims, the controversial burqa debate in France has been growing over the past five years. This year, a partial ban to be approved by the Parliament was proposed by French lawmakers.
But on the 21st of April, after the Cabinet meeting, President Nicholas Sarkozy stressed the need for the enforcement of a complete burqa ban, as opposed to a partial ban.
"It will not be welcome on French soil," Sarkozy had said in 2009 while addressing Parliament. "We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity."
The ban disallows the wearing of burqas in public arenas and would give officials the right to ask women to remove their burqas if deemed necessary. But as France struggles with moving towards the ban, last month, Belgium pushed ahead with its ban on the niqab and the burqa in public which, if passed, will set in July of this year.
"We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen," stated Daniel Bacquelaine, the liberal MP who had pushed for the ban.
Director of a global program for young Muslim leaders, Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT), Rushda Majeed, says that the answer doesn't lie in banning the burqa.
"French lawmakers must examine fully the reasons for marginalization of immigrant communities, including Muslim women, and find better means to further their progress," said Majeed. "A partial or full ban on the burqa falls far short of this goal."
Amr Adly, a Ph.D. student from Egypt, doesn't support the burqa but believes that the French government's venture to ban the burqa is under the false pretext of "defending women's freedom." This, Adly says, "is a reproduction of an old colonial discourse that claims that the 'white man' has a civilizing mission and that he will save and liberate the colonized even from themselves."
A French Moroccan student at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Reda Cherif, echoes Bouharb's stance.
"Only 300 to 400 Muslim women in France wear the burqa," Cherif says, "I believe the government is trying to distract the French people's attention away from the society's real problems, such as unemployment."
Cherif thinks that such a diversion by the government is in efforts of making sure the regional elections to be held in the second and third week of March are not lost.
"The idea being that if the debate would be over France's real issues, the government will lose votes because people would sanction it electorally," Cherif states. "But if the debate is focused around 'Islamophobia' or the 'fear of the alien' French citizens are more likely to vote for the government's party which is known to address national security and immigration issues effectively."
Mohamed Ali-Bouharb, the first Muslim chaplain of the Gendarmerie Nationale for the French army is of the opinion that the burqa debate comes at a very interesting point in France's electoral calendar in March, the commencement of the local elections.
Bouharb states, "[The burqa debate] is an excellent means to keep busy the public opinion and to evade the real issues of unemployment, accommodation, and economic crisis. And just as a reminder, this issue concerns only a very small minority of French Muslim women."
People have the fundamental right to dress in whatever they so wish, Bouharb emphasizes, but insists that there is more to the discussion.
"Each citizen has to respect the public maintenance of law and order," said Bouharb. "If a representative of an administration requests these Muslim women to remove their burqas in order to recognize or identify them, they have to understand that it is an obligation for their own security."
That being stated, Bouharb believes that banning the burqa -- whether partially or completely -- would lead to cultural disharmony within France.
Editor's Note: Originally in contact with Ms. Rehman, Mr. Bouhard's office is now refuting what was said in this article. While Ms. Rehman has only quoted from what was presented to her by Mr. Bouharb's secretary, it seems the quote was sent without his full approval. Mr. Bouharb's full response can be read here.