French parliament sets up panel to study burqa row

PARIS: French parliament created a commission today to study the wearing of ody-covering burqas and niqabs in France, a day after President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Islamic arment turns women into prisoners.

The 32-member commission, with members from France’s four major political parties, will hold hearings that could lead to legislation banning burqas from being worn in public. Some critics have warned that studying the issue could stigmatise France’s Muslims.

France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million. A small but growing group of French women wear burqas and niqabs, which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes.

Yesterday, Sarkozy told lawmakers he supported banning burqas in public, calling them “a sign of debasement” for women.

“We cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” Sarkozy said.

“It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” Last week, a group of 60 lawmakers from all political parties signed a petition demanding a parliamentary inquiry on the wearing of burqas. Muslim groups and government officials say it is difficult to know how many women wear burqas and niqabs in France, but estimate the number to be at least in the hundreds.

They are far less prevalent than simpler Muslim head scarves.

The commission is expected within six months to complete its work, which could lead to a proposed law on burqas.