The French minister for women has let down Muslim voters

The Guardian – Feature for G2 Magazine - 17 July 2012

Expectations were high when a Muslim woman from a North African background was made an instant star in France’s new Socialist cabinet in May. Not only was Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 34, made minister for women’s rights – a hugely important position in an administration committed to equality – but President François Hollande also appointed her official government spokesperson.

The narrative was clear: Vallaud-Belkacem had, after a relatively deprived childhood, overcome prejudice to embark on a glittering career. This energetic, socially aware young woman not only understood the values of the egalitarian French Republic, but personified them. By articulating her country’s most pressing contemporary problems, she would be on the first step to solving them.

How disappointing, then, that Vallaud-Belkacem’s most publicised policy announcement to date has been a pledge to “see prostitution disappear”. She maintains that a country that has historically done more to romanticise the sex industry than any other can somehow eradicate it. All very noble, certainly, but cynics would consider Vallaud-Belkacem’s grand plan a naive one, and typical of those that give radical governments a bad name.

Working girls in Paris have already accused her of trying to drive a relatively well regulated industry underground, with demonstrators at a protest march in the Pigalle red light district carrying banners that read: “Criminalised clients means murdered prostitutes”. Interior minister Manuel Valls has also reined Vallaud-Belkacem in, diplomatically suggesting that a ban would be “complicated”.

Muslims who envisaged a leftist government quashing the diktats of the Nicolas Sarkozy era are particularly interested in one piece of discredited legislation: the crassly tagged “burqa ban”. It was introduced by Sarkozy for “reasons” such as the fear that face coverings could be used by terrorists planting bombs. In reality, only a handful of women wear full veils, and there is absolutely no evidence that they are doing any harm to anyone.

The Socialists abstained from the 2010 vote that brought in the ban, with many agreeing it was a cloak for prejudice. Only a muddled view of secularism – or laïcité – prevented them from voting against the measure; one that failed to acknowledge that outward expressions of faith or culture are entirely compatible with the principles of the Fifth Republic. It was with a similar lack of sensitivity that the new President Hollande refused to overturn the “burqa ban”, instead awkwardly pledging to “apply it in the best way”.

Having met several women receiving convictions for the offence of wearing a full veil in suburban French courts, I am convinced there is no “best way” to continue the ban. There are ample anti-terror laws to stop burqas being used as a disguise, just as there are plenty of measures to stop discrimination against women. Manipulating the concept of secularism to criminalise such beliefs is anathema to a tolerant society.

Salima Kader, a 38-year-old mother-of-three who lives in the Paris suburb of Evry, and who continues to wear a full veil, says: “Since the ban came in we have experienced unpleasant attention from the police, but it is the hatred which comes from other people that makes it worse. They think the ban is official authorisation to insult, spit at and even physically assault. The ban has become a symbol of hate against all Muslim communities.”

Sarkozy’s ban vilified six million French Muslims in a campaign that also included efforts to outlaw halal meat, and a deeply divisive national identity debate. As last May’s presidential election approached, Sarkozy regularly highlighted the “burqa ban” in a bid to lure far-right National Front supporters to vote for him.

Many of the Muslim women I have spoken to are disappointed with the behaviour of Morocco-born Vallaud-Belkacem, one of seven children of an immigrant builder and housewife.

They would rather see her introduce realistic measures that would appease citizens from a similar background: from the building of mosques to simple reforms, such as women-only swimming sessions in public pools.

French Muslims provided massive support to Hollande in May, with a le Figaro poll suggesting that 93% of the estimated two million followers of the religion who voted backed him. Those votes were vital to his victory, and some came from traditional Muslim women who wanted an end to the state vindictiveness that the “burqa ban” encapsulates.

A laïcité bill was adopted by the Senate as recently as January – one which prevents any woman looking after children from wearing a simple headscarf. This applies to schools, leisure centres, nurseries and numerous other private institutions where ordinary, headscarf-wearing Muslim women work, including their own family homes.

Rather than presiding over job losses for these women, Vallaud-Belkacem should be championing a better place in society for them. Sonia Choukri, a 23-year-old student from Marseille, says: ‘The Socialists could get rid of the burqa ban with the stroke of a pen. They have a huge majority in Parliament.’

Muslim women in France are, in the main, from modest backgrounds. They are marginalised and, without exaggeration, scared of politicians who threaten their lifestyles and beliefs. If Vallaud-Belkacem is to become an effective women’s rights minister, then she should be working to try to improve the lot of all women in society, including those in the same underprivileged Muslim communities from which she came.

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