April 23, 2010— -- Muslims say the niqab, as their head-to-toe veil is called, shows that a woman is devout because the Koran says a woman should be modest. So women wear it out of respect for Allah, or God.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy says, in effect, the veil was first imposed on Muslim women by men, not God, and in France, women are not to be oppressed, they are to be treated as equals.
He says the veil should be banned in public places, especially schools and hospitals.
"It is not a religious symbol," says Sarkozy. "It's a sign of enslavement. ... It will not be welcome in the French republic."
While France is combating the veil on cultural grounds, the Netherlands and Belgium are debating a ban for security reasons and to ensure integration into society.
In Denmark, the government called the niqab and the burqa out of step with Danish values. But talks of a ban were put on hold after findings that showed only around 200 women wore a niqab or a burqa at all.
"It's important that we see each other," says Stefaan Van Hecke, a member of parliament for the Green Party in Belgium. "When we speak to each other, I think it's very important -- the social contact."
But there is real opposition to these bans.
Some people argue it will only drive a wedge further between Muslims and the West, inflaming the clash of cultures.
Some Muslim women, however, say their fathers and husbands are not forcing them to wear the garb, it's what they want to do.
"I think that's discrimination in many ways. ... It's personal choice and it's against freedom in every way," said one woman. "These Muslims are citizens just like any other citizens."
"Anyone who understands hijab understands that it has nothing to do with offending anybody in any way," said another.
At the center of it all is a question: Does a country that gives women freedom to wear very little, if they so choose, have the legal right to ban a burqa?
"Everyone should be free to express themselves," said one French woman, "without having to consult the law."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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