Muslim woman too orthodox for France
LA VERRIÈRE, France : When Faiza Silmi applied for French citizenship she was worried that her fluent French was not quite perfect 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, » Silmi said, her hazel eyes looking out of the narrow slit in her niqab, an Islamic facial veil that is among three flowing layers of turquoise, blue and black that cover her body from head to toe.
But last month, France’s highest administrative court upheld a decision to deny Silmi, 32, citizenship 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 somebody’s capacity to be assimilated into France based on private religious practice, taking laïcité – the country’s strict concept of secularism – from the public sphere into the home.
The case has sharpened the focus on the delicate balance between the tradition of Republican secularism and the freedom of religion guaranteed under the French Constitution – and how that balance might be shifting. It comes four years after a law banning religious garb in public schools was reinforced. And it comes only weeks after a court in Lille annulled a marriage on request of a Muslim husband whose wife had lied about being a virgin. (The government subsequently demanded a review of the court decision.)
So far, citizenship has only been denied on religious grounds in France when applicants were believed to be close to fundamentalist groups.
The ruling has received almost unequivocal support across the political spectrum, including among many Muslims. Fadela Amara, the French minister for urban affairs, called Silmi’s niqab « a prison » and a « straitjacket. »
« It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that promotes inequality between the sexes and is totally lacking in democracy, » said Amara, herself a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent.
François Hollande, the leader of the opposition Socialist Party, called the ruling « a good application of the law, » while Jacques Myard, the conservative lawmaker elected in the constituency where Silmi lives, demanded that face-covering veils be outlawed.
In an interview, Silmi told of her shock and embarrassment when she found herself unexpectedly in the public eye. Since July 12, when Le Monde first reported the court decision, her story has been endlessly dissected on newspaper front pages and in late-night television talk shows.
« They say I am under my husband’s command and that I am a recluse, » Silmi said during an hourlong conversation in her apartment in La Verrière, a small town 30 minutes southwest of Paris. At home, when there are no men present, she lifts her facial veil and exposes a smiling, heart-shaped face.
« They say I wear the niqab because my husband told me so, » she said. « 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? »
Silmi declined to have her photograph taken, saying that both she and her husband were uncomfortable with the idea.
Silmi married Karim, a French national of Moroccan descent, eight years ago and moved to France with him. Their four children, three boys and a girl, aged from 2 to 7, were all born in France. In 2004, Silmi applied for French citizenship, « because I wanted to have the same nationality as my husband and my children. » But her request was denied a year later because of « insufficient assimilation » into France.
She appealed, invoking the right to religious freedom. But late last month the Council of State, the judicial institution with final say on disputes between individuals and the public administration, upheld the ruling.
« 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, » said the ruling.
Emmanuelle Prada-Bordenave, the government commissioner who reported to the Council of State, said Simli’s interviews with social services revealed that « she lives in total submission to her male relatives. She seems to find this normal and the idea of challenging it has never crossed her mind. »
But everything is not as Western cliché might have it in the Silmi household. As she recounts her story, it is her husband who serves a steaming pot of mint tea and chocolate cookies. Silmi herself collected this interviewer from the rail station in her car. She does not wear her facial veil while driving and says that she also lifts it when she picks up her children at the local public school.
« What hurts me most is that people who don’t know me judge me like this, » she said. Journalists got many facts wrong, she said, starting with the number of her children and ending with the assertion that she refused to take off her veil when she was interviewed for her citizenship. « It is simply not true, » she said.
M’hammed Henniche of the Union of Muslim Associations in the Seine-Saint-Denis district north of Paris, fears that the ruling may open the door to what he considers ever more arbitrary interpretations of what constitutes « radical » Islam.
« What is it going to be tomorrow? The annual pilgrimage to Mecca? The daily prayer? » said Henniche. « This sets a dangerous precedent. Religion, so far as it is personal, should be kept out of these decisions. »
In one sign of the nature of some of the criteria used to evaluate Silmi’s fitness to become French, the government commissioner approvingly noted in her report that she was treated by a male gynecologist during her pregnancies.
The Silmis say they live by a literalist interpretation of the Koran. They do not like the term Salafism, although they say literally it means following the way of the prophet Muhammad and his companions.
« But today ‘Salafist’ has come to mean political Islam; people who don’t like the government and who approve of violence call themselves Salafists. We have nothing to do with them, » said Karim Silm, a soft-spoken man with a visible prayer mark on his forehead and a religious beard.
His wife explains that in 2000 she decided to wear the niqab, a dress code typically found on the Arabian Peninsula, because in her eyes her traditional Moroccan attire – a flowing djelaba with head scarf – was not modest enough. « I don’t like to draw men’s looks, » she said. « I want to belong to my husband and my husband only. »
She has given herself until September to decide whether to challenge the ruling.
France is home to nearly five million Muslims, roughly half of whom are French citizens. Criteria for granting French citizenship include « assimilation, » which normally focuses on how well the candidate speaks French.
Lately, though, President, Nicolas Sarkozy has stressed the importance of « integration » into French life. Part of his tougher immigration policy is a new law to make foreigners who want to join their families take an exam on French values as well as French language before leaving their countries.
Karim, a former bus driver who says he is finding it 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 said. « I am French but I can’t really say that I am proud of it right now. »
By Katrin Bennhold Published : July 18, 2008