I have read many varied responses to this issue, and thought that I would clarify my perspective on the entire subject. Western Europe, and France in particular, pride themselves on their policies of secularism and a democratic society. Freedom to practice one's creed is considered a cornerstone to any truly "democratic society." Of course, France has been notorious for their attempts to maintain an entirely secular approach, with debates having brewed about the permissibility of wearing a crucifix in public. Don't you DARE let me see that piece of wire around your neck! My intolerant atheist brain cannot handle it! I'm clearly FAR smarter than you are, as I know that when we die we just rot in the ground, keep your silly mumbo-jumbo religious iconography to yourself.
France's close geographical location to a blend of various cultures, Mediterranean, Arab, and Anglo-Saxon, and its role in "exploring" these territories however, has resulted in a melting pot of cultures that reside both within Western Europe and France. This has lead to many "indigenous" Europeans to beg the question “at what point does assimilation end, and maintaining your own cultural identity begin?” The population of Muslims throughout Europe is increasing, and with this increase many are seeing shifts in their country's demographic. Veiled women are becoming more and more frequent on the streets, which has brought with it a wave of mis-understanding and heightened Islamophobia. I would just like to add as a side note here, that this increase includes European Muslims, and Muslims that have emigrated from the Arab peninsula.
While the origin of the veil in Islam has no definite answer, Islamic scholars agree that modesty is elemental for any Muslim, male or female. It is the interpretation of this modesty that has brought with it a variety of solutions. The hijab, a covering just for a woman's hair, is a popular form of veiling. The niqab however is a growing phenomenon. An increasing number of women are choosing to wear the niqab in Egypt, with an estimated 17 percent of women in the country opting to don the niqab. Women are said to be attending mosque classes, and are there being convinced to wear the niqab. While this form of covering a woman's body is not seen as a part of Islam, its popularity surged in the 1970s with the rise of the Islamic groups, and continues to stir debates among Islamic scholars. If the issue of the niqab can create such heated debate within a Muslim country, it is easy to see why it is creating such a buzz in Western Europe.
President Sarkozy has been spearheading a campaign against the niqab in France. He has expressed his belief that it is a sign of a woman's “subservience” to men, stressing “that is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.” A belief shared by many is the difficulty that issuing a law that can enforce a certain dress code would bring, as it will indirectly end up isolating certain groups, in this case the Muslims. "Sorry madam, you cannot have your face covered, but please feel free to remove your shirt and walk around in your bra and panties...that's completely acceptable." Of course, should the niqab interfere with legal proceedings, such as the issuance of identity cards etc, then there should be legal parameters in place to overcome this problem (such as female security at airports to search female passengers...one plus one is two - very good!). While the niqab is seen as an extremist interpretation of a religious conviction, fair enough, intolerance alone should not be the basis of outlawing it.
Sarkozy however, has repeatedly noted that he is not targeting Islam directly, that he is rather addressing the social cohesion of French society. Surprisingly, this belief is echoed by many French youth online, who see the niqab as an immediate factor of isolation, and an obstacle to true cultural assimilation, without any reference to the religious element whatsoever. [I'm sure I'm not alone in finding this belief rather laughable, as France has proven to be one of the main hotbeds of Islamophobia in Western Europe] Other opinions stress that should a woman choose of her own free will to wear a niqab, that no governmental institution should hinder her decision. There has not yet been open Muslim opposition in France to Sarkozy's statements; some expressed the belief that it may in fact help weaken the extremist movements in France. This is a topic that will certainly be one to watch in the future.
Ultimately, if you chose to wear a niqab, knock yourself out. As long as it's your choice. As a woman however, I cannot understand this decision, as I would agree with Sarkozy that it is a sign of a woman's subserviance to men. Why is it that we, as females, are the one's responsible for controlling the sexual urges of any male that we pass on the street? And lets be serious here, if a man is already a pervert, and already has those thoughts on his mind, no amount of flowly black material is going to prevent him from his little mental picture show....