Eight years ago, Faiza Silmi moved to France with her husband, a French national of Moroccan descent. They had four children, all born in France. But when the 32-year-old Muslim, who wears a head-to-toe veil, applied for citizenship in 2004, she was denied. She appealed the decision, but last month was again denied on the grounds that she had "adopted a radical practice of her religion incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably with the principle of equality of the sexes, and therefore she does not fulfill the conditions of assimilation."
It's hard to know exactly how significant a factor the niqab was in the decision to deny Silmi citizenship. Immigration officials positively noted that she chose to be treated by a male gynecologist during her four pregnancies and made negative mention of the fact that she allegedly knows nothing of secularism or her right to vote, which suggests that the veil was only one of many factors. Nonetheless, most public readings of the ruling hold the niqab as the deciding factor, thus spurring a familiar debate over veiling, sexual equality and religious freedom.
On one side are those who argue that wearing the niqab is a personal choice that, on its own, does not contradict French values. Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslims, pointed out that Silmi adopted the full veil only after moving to France and asked what might have happened if she had made the decision to start veiling after being granted citizenship: "Would she then have been stripped of her nationality?" In other words, will France begin deporting citizens who adopt the veil? Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of French Muslims, very reasonably asked how exactly immigration officials define "radical" religious practices: "Will we see a man refused citizenship because of the length of his beard ... or a man who is dressed as a rabbi, or a priest?"
On the other, far more populated, side are politicians and French Muslim leaders who celebrate the decision (as they see it) against the niqab. France's urban affairs minister, Fadela Amara, a practicing Muslim, certainly didn't mince words about her abhorrence of the full-body veil: "The burqa is a prison, it's a straitjacket. It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes and which is totally devoid of democracy." Amara said she hoped the ruling would "dissuade certain fanatics from imposing the burqa on their wives." Except -- not that anyone seems to care -- Silmi says the veil wasn't imposed on her. "They say I wear the niqab because my husband told me so," she said. "I want to tell them: It is my choice."
That is where this familiar debate becomes familiarly provoking. Many women the world over are coerced into veiling, and strong arguments can be made about the inherent sexual inequality of veiling -- still, many women do make their own choice to veil (and to what degree they veil). I don't believe that it's contradictory to argue against forcing women to veil while also defending a woman's right to choose to veil -- even if one believes that the practice basically embraces sexual inequality. The trouble, of course, is in determining when a woman is choosing to veil and when she is being forced to veil -- and maybe this ruling really comes down to that question of meaningful choice. After all, immigration officials say that Silmi has no concept of her basic legal rights. Yet she asserts the opposite: "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?"