I would rather go to prison than take off the face veil, says Kenza Drider. Are they going to put a woman in prison because of a scrap of material? It's ridiculous.
12 May 2010. First published 3 June 2010
Kenza Drider is speaking at a conference in London on Saturday 21 May titled, Confronting anti-Muslim hatred in Britain and Europe. The conference is organised by Stop the War, together with other organisations in the Enough Coalition. Full details here...
Kenza Drider, wearing a niqab, stumbles as she is arrested near Notre Dame cathedral for protesting without permission.
She is France's most outspoken critic of the proposed burka ban - and she would rather go to prison than remove her face veil. Kenza Drider, 30, says she had been wearing the niqab for 11 years with no problem.
But now, thanks to the debate stirred up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, she finds herself bombarded with hate-filled insults. On one occasion, she was even lunged at by a knife-wielding maniac who then tried to run her over in front of her petrified kids.
French-born Kenza blasts the French authorities as "anti-Islam" and says it is now "almost a crime" to be a Muslim in her country. But she defiantly says: "I am prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights and I will fight for my liberty. What is the state going to do - send a policeman to my front door to give me a ticket every time I go out?
"Frankly I would rather go to prison than take off the face veil. Are they going to put a woman in prison because of a scrap of material? It's ridiculous and makes the country I love look stupid."
It is estimated just 300 French women in a population of 75 million wear the face veil, and I went to meet possibly the most outraged of those in a rundown Avignon suburb, deep in the south of the country.
I was ushered into Kenza's living room decorated in bold red, white and black. As she swept into the room in her full length henna-coloured gown and black niqab, it was clear she was equally as bold.
The mother-of-four, born and raised in France by Moroccan parents, told me she loves all things French but the law is letting down her beloved country.
Speaking in excellent English, she said: "I was from a family of practising Muslims but nobody wore the headscarf. "Yet I felt I was excluded from many things. As a child I couldn't play sports and I couldn't have friends who were boys. It was seen as bad. I felt all this was cultural, not religious, so I started researching and I came to see the Prophet's wives were like the first feminists who encouraged others to know their rights. It was empowering. The wives of the Prophet wore the face veil and I wanted to follow them.
"It was completely my own choice. Even my husband had no idea. When I put it on I felt so serene, so at peace. It sounds strange but I felt liberated."
I asked her husband, mild-mannered Allal, 40, who hovered in the background offering us coffee, what he thought. He smiled and shrugged, while Kenza laughed, making an "under the thumb" gesture, saying: "It was my choice."
She acknowledged that it was not a religious constraint: "It is not laid down in Islam that I have to wear a full veil. It is more a spiritual choice" Talking about the reactions her veil generated before the latest controversy, she added: "I did get surprised looks on the street and sometimes people would ask me why I was wearing it but it wasn't hostile - people were interested.
"Last week I saw a man in a kilt for the first time and did a double-take. It was the same when people saw me in the niqab - they would do a double-take then move on. But now it is completely different."
Kenza told of the day last July when she went to pick up her children from school. "Ever since this debate started I have suffered insults," she said. "But the worst thing was when this man came up to me shouting, 'You have no place here, go back to where you belong'. He went to his car and got a huge knife and came at me. I was absolutely terrified but luckily my husband turned up and a few others managed to disarm the man.
"He then got back in his car and tried to run me over. The worst thing was it all happened in front of the children."
Since President Sarkozy declared the veil an "affront to French values", Kenza said going out has become extremely difficult but she refuses to give it up. She said: "Targeting such a small minority of women who wear this is just ridiculous. Behind this is a process against Islam. First it was banning the headscarf in schools and now this. And it has created enormous racism and Islamaphobia where there was none before."
Kenza accepts that some women are forced to wear the veil by their husbands but insists the law would not help those oppressed women. "Such men will not allow their wives out of the house at all then, so how is the law helping?" she asked. Kenza explained she does show her face when she has to for security reasons but appearing without a veil in public constantly is, for her, unthinkable.
She said: "I don't care if other women want to wear next to nothing. It is their choice. But if they are allowed to do that then why should I not be allowed to cover up?" I asked her how she felt about being labelled an extremist because of the way she dresses. Does she feel sad?
"Sad? No! I feel angry. I am normally a happy person, but it makes me angry that I am thought of as a terrorist."
Kenza has three daughters - Hajar, eight, Thaouban, nine, and Seyfora, 12 - and a son, Chaima, ten. And she insisted she had no intention of forcing her daughters to cover up. She said: "My oldest daughter, doesn't want to wear a scarf or veil and I impose nothing on her or my other children."