Debate rages in France on the irony of burqa ban and mandatory face masks

A passenger wearing a protective face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 arrives at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 May 2020

Debate rages in France on the irony of burqa ban and mandatory face masks

  • All are required to wear a mask on public transport to avoid spreading coronavirus

PARIS: France has said that everybody will be required to wear a face mask on public transport to avoid spreading coronavirus, reigniting the debate about a national ban on face coverings worn for religious reasons.

The ban, which was introduced in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, outlaws the wearing of veils and masks that cover the face. Wearing such a face covering, like the burqa or niqab, is punishable by a 150 euro ($162) fine and/or enforced participation in citizenship education.
However it excludes face coverings worn for health reasons.
“They are two completely separate things,” Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and professor at the European University of Florence, told Arab News. “The burqa ban concerns the policy of ultra-secularity that we have had for 20 years in France, whereas wearing a protective mask that covers the face attracts the derision of some Muslims who are opposed to the burqa and veil ban.”
In early March, as the disease began to spread across the country, there were reports of scams related to face coverings. In one incident men dressed as police officers confronted a group of mask-wearing Chinese students and ordered them to pay on-the-spot fines because they were breaking the face-covering law.
The pandemic has also led to people wearing improvised face coverings — like scarves and bandanas — as the government was reserving masks for health workers.
French Muslims have remarked on the double standard of the burqa ban remaining in force when everyone is now obliged to wear a mask in public.
“I had no mask and I was allowed in by the police in a train station where covering my face for religious reasons with a scarf before COVID-19 was not allowed and sanctioned because of its ban in any public space,” one woman wrote on social media. “This is irony itself.”
Roy said that public opinion had focused on Islam since 2015, the year of deadly terror attacks in France that were claimed by Islamists.
“Before COVID-19, the whole debate in France was about the Islamization of neighborhoods, the relationship between jihad and young people who were fighting the police, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, secession and civil war. However, the social movements that have been taking place in France for the past five years have nothing to do with Islam.”
In 2013, 300,000 people marched in Paris to protest against same-sex marriage, Roy added. The “yellow vest” demonstrations that began in 2018 were not anti-Islam, they were about perceived economic injustices and Muslims were among the protesters.
“These two big movements put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, but Islam had nothing to do with either of them.”
The issue of face masks for COVID-19 had no relevance to the debate about Islam and the veil although some were trying to turn it into a political issue about Muslims in French society, the professor said.
A few social media posts from Muslim women pointing out the irony of having to wear a face mask as a health precaution while they were unable to wear a veil was not an attempt to launch a protest movement against the burqa ban, according to Roy. The women were merely pointing out one of the odd effects that the current crisis was having on them. It was others who were attempting to politicize it, he added.
“It is not hypocrisy. It is schizophrenia in the end that makes the debate focus on a theme that has no concrete expression on the street or in French society.
“We keep talking about the Islamization of neighborhoods but we know nothing about it and the people mentioning it often have no experience of it.
“The women on Facebook who talk about the obligation to put on the mask while the burqa is banned are simply expressing irony.
“They now say that everybody mistakes the headscarf they wear to go shopping for an anti-coronavirus mask. This is neither a protest movement nor a political movement, rather, it is simple irony. Only these women, as well as the Washington Post, perceive this irony.”

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

Updated 05 June 2020

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

  • Indo-Pak border a breeding ground for bug; worst attack in over 20 years, says expert

NEW DELHI: Suresh Kumar was sipping tea on the balcony of his Jaipur house on Friday when the sun suddenly disappeared. Thinking it was probably a black cloud that was filtering out the daylight, he looked up and saw swarms of locusts covering the sky of the capital city of the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Within a few minutes, short-horned grasshoppers were everywhere —walls, balconies and nearby trees — as they forced people to take refuge in their houses.

“It was unprecedented,” Kumar, who lives in Jaipur’s walled city area, told Arab News on Thursday. “Never before have I witnessed such a scene. Suddenly millions of aliens invaded our locality. Some residents of the neighborhood tried to bang some steel plates to shoo them off, but the jarring sound did not make much of an impact. However, the swarms left the area within an hour or so.”

More than a thousand kilometers away, in the Balaghat district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, farmer Dev Singh had a similar experience, although the bugs not only occupied his farmhouse, they destroyed the budding leaves of different kinds of pulses which he had sown in his field.

“Only a few weeks ago I harvested the wheat crop,” he told Arab News. “In a way, I’m lucky that the locusts have come now … otherwise the damage would have been much greater,” but he added that “with the pulse plant damaged in good measure, the yield will not be great this year.”

His area has been cleared of the locusts after the intervention of local authorities, which sprayed chemicals to kill the bugs and blared out sirens to shoo them off.

India is already grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and struggling to cope with the devastation caused by a recent cyclone. The country is also dealing with rising unemployment figures after more than 100 million people went jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is facing security issues, too, in the form of a seething border dispute with China. The locust invasion has added to beleaguered India’s laundry list of woes.

Scientists said it was a serious crisis.

“This is the worst locust attack in more than two decades,” Dr. K. L. Gurjar, of the Faridabad-based Locust Warning Organization, told Arab News. “Compared to the past, these locusts are younger and have traveled a longer distance. This should be a cause of concern. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be badly impacted. We are controlling and containing the situation on a daily basis.”

According to media reports, around 50,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed by desert locusts in the two states during the last four weeks.

“The problem will persist until the invasion of swarms continues from across the border in Pakistan and Iran. The Indo-Pak border has become the breeding ground for the bug,” Gurjar added.

But he remained hopeful that the country would get rid of the menace through its measures, despite the present danger.

“There is a danger of locusts remaining alive for a longer period, though we are hopeful to ultimately sort them out.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University (JNAU) of Jabalpur has also been monitoring the situation in Madhya Pradesh, noting that locusts damage the crop completely wherever they go.

“Desert locusts stay immobile throughout the night and their movement begins again in the morning and they fly along the direction of the wind,” JNAU’s Dr. Om Gupta told Arab News. “Wherever they find shelter, they damage the crops in totality. In some areas, locusts have created havoc.”

She added that spray was generally used in the evening or early morning to kill the bugs. “They breed very fast and we focus on killing their eggs. What we are dealing with is nothing short of a catastrophe, and we are not going to get respite from this anytime soon.”