President or prison, says Kenza Drider, France's niqab rebel

Kenza Drider, a French Muslim who wears the niqab in defiance of the law, explains what she hopes to achieve by standing as a presidential candidate.
Kenza Drider did not grow up wearing even a headscarf but chose to adopt the niqab to deepen her faith.
Kenza Drider did not grow up wearing even a headscarf but chose to adopt the niqab to deepen her faith.

Like any self-respecting French presidential candidate, Kenza Drider holds a vision of a better France rooted in its lofty republican principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

But none of the frontrunners from right or left would, in one key respect, share her interpretation of that noble motto: that it obliges French law to recognise her right to wear a face-covering veil. Drider's spirited defiance of the new law banning the niqab in public has made her, for supporters, a Muslim version of the Marianne figure who gives feminine identity to France. She is also the figurehead of resistance to similar laws enacted or proposed in other parts of Europe.

This combative mother of four from Avignon, known as the "city of popes" since its 14th-century role as the seat of the papacy, has all but begged the authorities to haul her before the courts. The question is probably not whether she will get her wish, but when.

And now, she has taken her campaign a step further by declaring herself a prospective contender for the Elysée when Nicolas Sarkozy's first term ends next spring.

Seated on a park bench near her home in the appropriately named Place de la Résistance in the St Jean district of Avignon, a drab but clean and peaceful suburban estate, Drider laughs off any thought of becoming France's first female president.

"Winning isn't the aim," she says. "I want to make people understand their politicians have violated the values on which our country is founded."

Drider, 32, may symbolise a relatively small revolt; fewer than 2,000 Muslim women in France covered their faces and most seem to be complying with the law. But she is no stereotypical oppressed Maghrebin housewife barely speaking French and forced behind a veil by a husband. Born in France to Moroccan parents, Drider is articulate, confident and open-minded. She made her own choice to conceal her face, leaving only her eyes visible, 13 years ago and bought her first niqab without telling her husband, Allal.

"I am French, love my country and have friends who are Christians and Jews as well as Arab," she says. "Some wear miniskirts. My own daughters are almost more modern, with their make-up, fashions and music, than schoolfriends. And of course I don't believe any man should force a woman to wear a veil.

"It is my personal preference, one I feel entitled to express in a country that values freedom, democracy and human rights."

Drider, who did not even wear a headscarf growing up, adopted the full veil after studying Islam, reading that the Prophet's wives covered their faces and feeling something was missing from her own practice of the faith. Allal was surprised at first, but respects her choice. She says her children - daughters aged 13, 12 and 10 and a son, 11 - support her, too; the girls will be encouraged to make their own choices as they grow older.

"There were few problems before the law," she says. "People might have looked at me in surprise, as they would at a Scotsman with his kilt and bagpipes. But now, there are insults on the streets; I don't get called a terrorist but people say 'go back to your own country'. I have friends who ask their neighbours to collect their children from school because they are frightened to go out. Not frightened of the police but of people who feel free to abuse them."

On the day the law took effect in April, Drider took the train to Paris to join demonstrations, attracting her first attention from police. Twice subsequently, she has been cautioned, once when showing solidarity with two women whose defiance of the ban ended in court.

"I don't know when or whether I will be prosecuted too," she says, "but I will fight on whatever the consequences." That fight, theoretically, could lead to jail on refusal to pay fines of up to €150 (Dh728) for each offence. She could also be ordered to take a "citizenship course" which, as an otherwise law-abiding citizen, she finds laughable.

In reality, any fines would be paid by Rachid Nekkaz, an affluent French-Algerian businessman who created Touche Pas à Ma Constitution (Hands Off My Constitution). Nekkaz dislikes the niqab but loathes what he sees as an unconstitutional law.

"If he wants to pay, that's fine, not because I want him to but as a necessary step towards appeals in France and eventually the European Court of Human Rights," Drider says.

"I respect the law. If I go through a red light and a policeman stops me, I would accept the penalty. But this is as if he stops me when I don't go through red and says I did. I'm doing nothing wrong."

Drider's answer to frequently voiced objections to the niqab is that she opposes coercion and readily reveals her face if required to confirm identity.

Her presidential campaign promises to be high-profile with a string of interviews with French and overseas media and, next month, a gathering of mayors in Paris where she will seek signatures confirming her candidacy. There lies the obstacle to her nominal ambitions: she needs 500 elected officials to sign and expects to struggle to reach 100. "But if I raise awareness," she says, "then I will have succeeded."

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Published: October 15, 2011 04:00 AM


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