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Women immigrant outreach groups steer clear of burqa debate

Text by Guillaume LOIRET

Latest update : 2010-03-09

Women’s associations working to help immigrant families in underprivileged French neighbourhoods are resisting a politician’s initiative to use their influence to discourage the burqa, the head-to-toe Islamic veil.

Les Bosquets de Montfermeil (“Montfermeil Grove”) may only be 15 kilometres from Paris but it's a good hour-and-a-half train ride, and another world away from the French capital.

The low-income housing estate is an isolated enclave with a bad reputation. The area was hit hard by youth riots that rocked Parisian suburbs in November 2005; for the French press, les Bosquets is inextricably linked to violence and France’s problems integrating its minorities.

Integration is the mission of the Archives of Family Immigration (Arifa), an association of women who help immigrant families in the neighbourhood navigate bureaucratically complex French medical, legal, and educational institutions, as well as other social services. Arifa was founded in the late 1980s, a time that saw a rise in French organisations made up of female social workers from immigrant families.

Arifa’s headquarters are located in one of les Bosquets’ last standing housing blocks (the neighbourhood is being renovated), and its twelve employees are a group as diverse as the area they work in: the staff includes association director Maryse, a Frenchwoman, Nassima, who is of Algerian descent, Pinda and Aissata, who are Malian, and Assifa, who was born in Pakistan.

“We work with illiterate women,” explains Nassima, the association’s coordinator. Ninety percent of the neighbourhood’s women speak only a little French. “We help people with their administrative procedures, we escort women to the hospital,” Nassima continues.

Social workers in les Bosquets have their work cut out for them: 7,000 people - the vast majority of which are ethnic minorities - live in often run-down buildings and the unemployment rate reached 25 percent in 2008. The area is so hard to reach that it becomes a sort of ghetto far removed from the City of Lights and its sumptuous attractions. In January alone, the women of the association were contacted by 240 of les Bosquets’ female residents.

The neighbourhood of Les Bosquets. Photo by Nicolas Oran.

'We need to move forward in baby steps'

These women who work to close the gap between France and its immigrant families are now present in most underprivileged neighbourhoods in the country. They also seem to interest some of the highest-level French authorities: last June, Jean-François Copé, the president of the ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement Party (UMP) in France’s National Assembly, suggested sending social workers from these associations to talk to women who wear the head-to-toe Islamic headscarf, the 'burqa', and their husbands. The objective was to try “to understand how one could get to that point” and to explain to these couples the implications of a possible law banning the burqa in the public sphere, a proposition which has sparked much debate in France.

The women who work for immigrant outreach associations in Montfermeil and elsewhere consider Copé’s initiative misguided at best and manipulative at worst.

“Women who wear the head-to-toe veil do so by religious choice, their husbands don’t force them to do it. When it’s about religion, the involvement is so strong that we can have a dialogue, but you can’t just oppose things,” says Fatima Ould Kaddour, head of the Schebba association in Marseille. “Dialogue takes a long time to happen. Sometimes we’re seen as a threat by certain communities…we need to move forward in baby steps,” explains Pinda, who works for Arifa.

Part of the problem is that the women of these associations have been working on the ground for years, and many of them feel that Copé’s mission would require them to abruptly change their approach.

A law for a few hundred people

A view of Les Bosquets neighbourhood. Photo by Nicolas Oran.

Critics of the proposed burqa ban also question the point of such a law, given the relatively low number of women concerned. “I’ve never dealt with women wearing the burqa here. There are only a few of them in les Bosquets,” explains Nassima, who says she is nevertheless willing to help raise awareness about the issue as long as the women are interested. Fatima says of Marseille: “In the neighbourhoods we deal with here, there are very few women who wear the head-to-toe veil, maybe about four out of 15,000 residents.

“I know two of them, they are about 30 years old, and neither of them is forced to wear it.” Such accounts call into question the legitimacy of a law that would affect only a few hundred people.

In July 2009, daily newspaper Le Monde quoted French information services estimating that 367 women in France wear the burqa or niqab (a veil which covers the face). Two months later, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux put that number at 2,000.

“There are very few women who wear the burqa, and in any case they don’t come see us,” concludes Nicole Larka, who is in charge of a women’s immigrant outreach group in Belfort, in the east of France. “Going to them to talk about it would only result in isolating them even more.”

Date created : 2010-03-09