A heated and often bad-tempered argument over
France's decision to ban full-face veils in public, launched the seventh
series of The Doha Debates, with an overwhelming majority in the mainly-Arab
audience opposing it.
Debating the motion that "France is right to ban
the face veil", both teams haggled passionately before 78 per cent of the
house voted against the move, amid claims that a secular state was
interfering in personal freedom and fuelling Islamophobia and racism.
Supporters of the motion argued that the niqab
is not a symbol of Islam and that requiring women to cover their faces goes
against the French state's principles of secularism and equality.
The four speakers often shouted across each
other, reflecting tension over an issue that has divided both Western Europe
and the Islamic world. Arabs fear the French bill is part of a wider
anti-Muslim trend in Europe, where several countries are considering a
similar move. Switzerland voted in a referendum this summer to ban the
construction of new minarets.
Speaking in favour of the motion were Jacques
Myard, a member of the ruling conservative UMP coalition in the French
national assembly and Farzana Hassan, a writer and women's rights activist
of Pakistani origin.
"Never in our history has anyone had some piece
of cloth in front of her face," said Mr. Myard. "This is a blow to the
French nation.....do you really want society in France living in boxes which
do not communicate? We are citizens of the French Republic."
In response to a question, Mr. Myard,
acknowledged that it wasn't an easy decision but he added: "It is better
today to bar something that hurts the deep soul of France than to do
something in the future that hurts more."
Ms. Hassan, a member and former founder of the
Muslim Canadian Congress, said the niqab should be banned to protect women
from growing radicalization. "The veil over the face will give my religion
Islam a very bad name. Restricting some rights to protect others is not an
infringement", she added.
Nabila Ramdani, a journalist and commentator who
specialises in Arab and Islamic affairs said her opponents' arguments were
based on myths. "As a proud French citizen I tell you this is autocratic and
intolerable - a clear suppression of freedom of religion."
Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor of the UK
publication, the NewStatesman, also criticised the ban, saying it was
"unnecessary, self-defeating and morally-wrong" for a state to infringe on
the freedom of women to wear what they want in public.
He said the move targeted minorities and likened
it to "someone who was reaching for a Bazooka to kill a fly." What has
happened, he asked,"to liberty, equality and fraternity?"
France's parliament, he suggested, would be
better off looking into the president's declining popularity and other
economic and domestic political challenges.