Letter: Burqa ban debate in context

In response to “Neither respectful nor liberating” (May 31).

By Letter to the Editor

The University of Chicago French Club was pleased to see the discussions prompted by this month’s talk “Neither Whores Nor Submissive: The Burqa Ban in France.” In response to Zahed Haseeb’s piece “Neither respectful nor liberating” (May 31), we would like to add a few clarifications.

The conference was the first in what we hope to be a long series of talks aimed at giving UChicago students the opportunity to interact directly with practitioners at the center of French political, social, cultural and, economic life. We seek to foster discussion on Franco-American or “Franco-French” issues like the burqa ban that have made headlines in the U.S., perhaps perplexing or piquing the curiosity of American onlookers. The French Club invited Fadela Amara, former French minister and founder of the feminist organization Neither Whores Nor Submissive, to provide context surrounding the 2010 ban on the burqa in public spaces.

Given his disgust at “the abuse of women anywhere,” Haseeb will be glad to learn that Amara has dedicated her life to calling attention to and improving the situation of women in marginalized French neighborhoods. Amara is a prominent authority in France on racism and gender discrimination within and against the country’s immigrant North African Muslim population. First a victim of such discrimination, she then became an activist in this community, engaging in “concerted efforts to ensure that women receive their due and that any abuse or infringement upon a woman’s sense of agency is viewed as unacceptable.” It is precisely in accordance with this view that Amara pushed for the burqa ban.

The ban and the support that “people of Amara’s ilk” show for it are a reaction to evidence of increasing pressure on women in French immigrant neighborhoods—pressure that leads to forced marriages and genital mutilation, as well as intimidation over how to dress. Whether or not the burqa ban is the best way to address these issues is, of course, a matter for debate.

It is important to note that the burqa ban had widespread political support in France from both the left and right. It is simply incorrect to associate Amara with the French extreme right. A member of the Socialist Party for 23 years, Amara firmly considers herself a “femme de gauche.” A practicing Muslim, born of Algerian immigrant parents in a ghetto outside Clermont-Ferrand, France, Amara falls squarely in the category of those the National Front, the far-right French political party, would love to see deported.

Though the law in itself is debatable and we wish to encourage such discussion, we hope that students will engage in critiques of Amara’s work with full knowledge of both her background and its French context, in which the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among a minority has pushed some women to “choose” between being harassed or wearing a full-body veil.

Though he was unfortunately unable to attend the talk in person, Haseeb, and all others interested, will soon be able to view the video of the talk on our Web site, UChicagoFrenchClub.com We look forward to many more spirited discussions on France and Franco-American issues at our future events.

—The University of Chicago French Club