A law banning the face-covering Muslim veil takes effect Monday in France, where the garments are called burqa or niqab. President Nicolas Sarkozy says the veils are an assault on French values of secularism and equality of the sexes, and now they can no longer be worn in public. Critics say the French president is trying to attract right-wing voters by focusing on Muslims.
On a recent warm spring afternoon, at a mosque in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, the faithful gather for Friday prayers. The imam told the men to scoot closer.
"You know, there is an Islamophobic climate here right now, and the police don't like to see us praying in the streets," he says.
Outside the makeshift mosque, housed in an old office building, men kneel on carpets. Rachid Zaieri says for the most part it's fine being a Muslim in France — though he says there has been a rise in political talk against Islam in the past few years, and this burqa ban is a part of that.
"We don't feel this law is sincere," he says. "It doesn't mean we're for the burqa. But we think the law is just an excuse to tell French people, 'Watch out, there is a growing Muslim population that you should be afraid of.' "
Many Muslims here blame Sarkozy for what they say is an anti-Muslim climate in France today. They say the president creates debates around Islam so that people will forget about real problems, like the economy.
In the women's section of the mosque, everyone wears loose- and long-fitting clothing and headscarves. But only a scarce few wear the niqab, a full face-covering veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes. Even by the French government's own estimates, fewer than 2,000 women across the country wear the niqab. Someya, who doesn't want to give her last name, is one of them.
"I feel like I'm doing something higher," the 22-year-old says. "I'm wearing it for God and for my husband, so that he'll be the only person who can see me and be able to appreciate my face."
Someya says she'll take off her niqab Monday because she has no choice. But she believes the government is infringing on her personal freedoms.
Sarah Morvan, an 18-year-old Muslim convert who also wears the niqab, has just pulled on her long black gloves and stepped out onto the street. Not a bit of skin is showing. Morvan says the new law will only force her to stay at home more often with her 3-month-old daughter, whom she pushes in a stroller in the afternoon sun.
It's a very emotional experience to wear the niqab, says Morvan, who embraced wearing it two years ago. You are sheltered from all onlookers and completely cut off from society, she says.
That is exactly why the French government is banning it. Sarkozy says the niqab and burqa isolate women and take away their humanity. The French immigration minister called the burqa a "walking coffin."
So starting Monday, police will ask women to uncover their faces and show their IDs. If they refuse, they could be fined up to $200 and forced to attend a civics class. The punishment is stiffer for any man caught forcing a woman to cover her face. They're subject to a fine of up to $40,000 and possible jail time.
Aubervilliers is 70 percent Muslim. Many, like cafe owner Kamel Mesbah, say they understand the intent of the law, to weaken what he calls the burqa culture.
You can't have things like men and women refusing to shake each other's hands, and separate hours for boys and girls at the public swimming pool, he says. That's just not France. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.