Fashion week in Paris and after a display of pink and purple mini-dresses in an elegant apartment near the presidential palace, an assistant wheels out a rack bearing two very different creations: black abaya.
The billowing gowns to cover the body have been made for the Saudi market by Paris-based couturier Adam Jones.
As France considers banning full facial veils such as the niqab and the full cloak and veil or burqa, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said is not welcome in the country, the fact that it is a major exporter of couture abaya may seem odd.
But that is just one of the many contradictions exposed by the latest clash between secularism and religion in the home of Europe’s largest Muslim community.
“If someone tells me, ‘design an abaya,’ why not, I’m proud of that. It’s just a garment,” haute couture designer Stephane Rolland, who has made many abaya for Middle Eastern clients, said backstage after his fashion show in Paris.
When asked about the broader debate whether veils are a sign of subservience and should be outlawed, his confidence wavered.
“I don’t want to speak about religion, that’s a different subject. But I don’t want to cover the woman — alas, I don’t want to think about that,” he said before turning away.
While French designers are wooing Saudi clients in airy showrooms, across town in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville the picture is very different.
“If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist,” said Ikram Es-Salhi, a 20-year-old student standing outside the Zeina Pret-A-Porter shop that sells mass-produced headscarves, tunics and abaya.
Es-Salhi wears a long brown veil that covers her head and body but leaves her face open. She would like to wear the full niqab, but it is banned at her college.
She already switched from her preferred course of study, nursing, to languages and sociology as nurses are not allowed to wear veils.
She and her friend Aichatou Drame, who wears an ample white headscarf, decided to veil themselves three years and two weeks ago, respectively.
Their families were against it, worrying it will cause them trouble.
Many feminists not only in the West see the veil as an expression of a spreading ideology that wants to hide and silence women, undoing years of struggle for women’s rights.
But as educated French women from immigrant families, Es-Salhi and Drame reject the notion that this debate is about women’s rights.
“The real reason for this is Islamophobia,” said Es-Salhi, trembling with anger. “There are a lot more sisters who are wearing the veil now. If the niqab is banned, they will just stay at home or emigrate to the US, to Britain, to Morocco.”
For them, the main problems of Muslim women in France are not the veil but discrimination and unemployment among young people from immigrant families.
France does not release data on unemployment for certain ethnic groups, but the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in May highlighted discrimination against youths of North African and black African origin as a major problem in its labor market.
Others see the full veil itself as a problem.
Ni Putes Ni Soumises (“Neither Whores nor Submissives”), an organization promoting women’s rights in France’s multi-ethnic suburbs, has called the burqa an “open-air prison” and said extremists were taking women’s bodies hostage.