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A Veiled Debate

Controversies over Muslim veils raise tough questions about assimilation in Europe

By Katrin Bennhold in France


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When Faiza Silmi applied for French citizenship in 2004, she worried that her French was not quite good enough or that her Moroccan upbringing would pose a problem.

"I would never have imagined that they would turn me down because of what I choose to wear," says Silmi, a 32-year-old devout Muslim who wears a niqab, a head-to-toe veil that covers her face, leaving a slit for her eyes.

But in June, France's highest administrative court upheld a decision to deny citizenship to Silmi, on the ground that her "radical" practice of Islam was incompatible with French values like equality of the sexes. It was the first time that a French court had judged someone's capacity to be assimilated into France based on private religious practice.

The case has highlighted the balancing act between freedom of religion and assimilation in Europe, and to a lesser extent, the United States, which have both experienced an influx in recent years of Muslim immigrants.

One reason it's been less of an issue in the U.S. is that Muslims are generally more assimilated in the U.S. than in Europe; the U.S., which has always been more of a "melting pot," has historically had an easier time accommodating new cultures than European nations, which tend to be much more homogeneous. In France, assimilation has long been official policy.

Britain's Experience

Elsewhere in Europe, the Danish government has barred judges from wearing religious garments and symbols. In Belgium, several cities have enacted outright bans on burqas, another kind of veil.

In Britain, there have been a number of efforts to place legal curbs on niqabs. A British lawyer dressed in a niqab was recently told by an immigration judge that she could not represent a client. A teacher wearing a niqab was dismissed from her school. And British courts have upheld a school's right to ban students from wearing niqabs.

In France, the ruling that denied Faiza Silmi citizenship because of her niqab has received widespread support across the political spectrum. Advocates for women's rights have decried what they see as restrictions on Muslim women living among them. Many French Muslims also support the ruling. Fadela Amara, the French minister for urban affairs and herself a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent, called Simli's niqab "a prison" and "a straitjacket."

In an interview at her home, Silmi explains: "They say I wear the niqab because my husband told me so," she says. "I want to tell them: It is my choice. I take care of my children, and I leave the house when I please. I have my own car. I do the shopping on my own. Yes, I am a practicing Muslim, I am orthodox. But is that not my right?"

Eight years ago, Silmi married a French national of Moroccan descent, and moved to France with him. Their four children were born in France. She applied for French citizenship, she says, "because I wanted to have the same nationality as my husband and my children." But her request was denied because of "insufficient assimilation" into France.

"She has adopted a radical practice of her religion, incompatible with essential values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes," the ruling says.

Veils have even proven controversial in Turkey, a Muslim country with an 80-year tradition of official secularism. Earlier this year, the government failed to overturn a longstanding ban on women wearing headscarves at universities. The controversy over the ban drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.

In the U.S.

The issue of Islamic dress has also come up in the U.S, where a Florida judge ruled in 2003 that a Muslim woman could not cover her face with a niqab in her driver's license photo. But in general, the U.S. takes a very different approach to the relationship between religion and the state than most European nations.

The First Amendment forbids government from endorsing a particular religion, but it would be unconstitutional for a public school or institution in the U.S. to ban someone for wearing a particular kind of religious clothing.

France, on the other hand, actively tries to keep religious symbols out of public institutions. A 2004 law banned students from wearing any religious garb—including Muslim veils—in the nation's public schools. The ruling denying Silmi citizenship based on her niqab goes a step further.

Silmi's husband, who says it's hard to get work because of his beard, dreams of moving his family to Morocco or Saudi Arabia. "We don't feel welcome here," he says. "I am French, but I can't really say that I am proud of it right now."