Sartorial offense: The niqab and the burqa
The debate: With France's forceful response to the events in Libya, President Nicolas Sarkozy may have cast himself as a defender of freedom in the Islamic world, but a controversial new law back home is unlikely to win him many points among Muslims. Under a regulation that was passed by Parliament last October and went into effect on April 11, women will no longer be able to appear in public wearing traditional Islamic garments including the niqab -- a full face covering -- and the burqa, a full body covering. Anyone caught wearing the niqab can be fined over $200 or required to take courses on French citizenship. Fines are much higher -- over $20,000 or jail time -- for men who force their wives to wear the burqa.
Police made the first two arrests under the new law on the day it went into effect, taking two women into custody at a rally in front of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral. Under the rules, police are forbidden from asking women to remove their veils in public, but must escort them back to a police station where they will be forced to remove it.
France's discomfort with public displays of religion is nothing new: The wearing of headscarves in state schools has been banned since 2004. But the new law comes at a particularly fraught time for France's Muslim community. Sarkozy's UMP party recently hosted a controversial national debate on the role of Islam in society, and the president has made comments describing multiculturalism as a failure. French Muslims claim the ban is a symbolic, discriminatory response to a problem that doesn't exist: Fewer than 2,000 women in France are believed to wear full face coverings.
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