‘I will go out in my full veil and fight’

Kenza Drider, a respectable mother of four, will leave her home in Avignon’s Place de la Resistance today with the intention of committing a crime.

If the police are waiting for her – and they have had more than enough warning – she will be cautioned, perhaps be asked to accompany officers to the local station, possibly face a fine and, perhaps, will leave with a criminal record.

It is unlikely she will end up in jail, but who knows? It is a risk she is willing to take. Drider is not only determined to become a miscreant; she sees it as her absolute duty to do so.

This 32-year-old French housewife has become the face of the country’s “burqa brigade”, the women in France who cover themselves from head to toe in full veils.

She will fall foul of a law that kicks in tonight NZT and forbids French citizens from covering their faces in public places; despite the ban’s deliberately general wording, there is no doubt its target is very specific: Muslim women.

Drider’s first offence will be to set foot inside Avignon’s TGV rail station where she is due to take a train to Paris.

For this she risks a €150 ($278) fine and, if she repeats the offence, being sent on a “citizenship course”.

“I will be going about my business in my full veil as I have for the last 12 years and nothing and nobody is going to stop me,” she declares.

Police yesterday arrested 61 people – including 19 women – for attempting to hold an outlawed Paris protest against the ban.

Most of the would-be protesters were released after being taken to police stations, though six remained in custody – mostly on suspicion of being in France illegally.

Like most of the women concerned by this law, Drider wears a niqab veil that reveals only her eyes, as opposed to a burqa, the full body covering worn by Afghan women.

For all the political energy President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-of-centre Government has expended on this law, it will affect a relatively tiny number of women; estimates range from 350 to a maximum 2000 full-veil wearers out of France’s population of roughly 64 million.

It is not the potential effectiveness – or otherwise – of the ban that bothers Drider, however. It is the principle.

“This whole law makes France look ridiculous,” she says. “I never thought to see the day when France, my France, the country I was born in and I love, the country of liberte, egalite, fraternite, would do something that so obviously violates people’s freedom.”

The St Jean estate, not far from Avignon’s medieval ramparts and the celebrated bridge, is not so much impoverished as uniform and unimaginative, a maze of apartment blocks painted various shades of beige.

Drider’s husband, Allal, 40, who works in a soup factory, says that, unlike other housing estates, the area is not “chaud” (hot) and there is little trouble. He is jolly with a neatly trimmed beard. He jokes that perhaps he should grow it longer and bushier, as Islamophobes think he and his wife are extremists.

Parliamentarians and feminists in France have argued that the full veil is a symbol of male oppression and that niqab-wearing women are bullied into it by their husbands. In Drider’s case, this seems unlikely.

Drider, whose parents were immigrants from Morocco, says wearing the niqab was her own personal choice. In this, according to a study by the At Home in Europe project of the Open Society Foundations, due to be released today, she is not unusual: nearly all of the 32 French women interviewed for the project say they – and no one else – made the decision that they would wear the niqab.

“I would never encourage others to do it just because I do. That is their choice. My daughters can do what they like,” says Drider.

She adds: “I never covered my head when I was young. I came from a family of practising Muslims, but we were not expected to even wear a headscarf.

“[Later] in my research into the wives of the Prophet I saw they wore the full veil and I … liked this idea and decided to wear it. Before I had felt something was missing.”

Drider says it is only since Sarkozy’s Government began discussing the veil ban that she has been subject to insults, harassment and death threats.

“This … has created enormous racism and Islamophobia that wasn’t there before.”

Drider says the issue is bigger than her and laughs at the threat of “citizenship courses” and fines, which she says she will not pay.

“This is about basic fundamental human rights and freedoms. I will go out in my full veil and I will fight. I’m prepared to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and I will fight for my liberty.”

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