France certainly knows how to get back on our political radar – the recent recommendation by a parliamentary panel in the French government to “ban the burqa” in public institutions in late January set off a fresh whirlwind of debates, protests, and controversy. The decision, which would prohibit Muslim women from wearing the full-body garment in public areas such as post offices, schools, and public transportation, have seen many justifications ranging from “preservation of national identity” (the justification that President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to favor) to women’s rights to “national security.”
A brief assessment of the situation may suggest that the conflict might be attributed to the divide between the West and Islam regarding women’s freedoms; Sarkozy, whose disaffection for the garment has been widely and well-documented, has commented that the burqa is “not a sign of religion; it is a sign of subservience.” However, the discussion can be couched in the greater scope of French policy towards religion. Since 1905, when the French government adopted a policy of laïcité , the state has not recognized or funded any religion in order to avoid privileging any school of thought. Additionally, the French have mandated that the public sphere remain “neutral” from religion. Unlike the United States, however, France has adopted a policy of “freedom from religion,” as opposed to “freedom of religion.” In terms of religion and immigrant groups, France has adopted a policy of assimilation by individuals, rather than by communities or groups. The relevance to Muslim immigration (there are currently estimated to be 5 million Muslims living in France today) is clear; French tradition is based on a policy of acceptance of individuals, whereas larger groups (that are reliant on a separate school of thought – Islam, in this instance) threaten the foundations of French society.
Under this policy of laïcité, the proposed ban on burqas in the public sphere can theoretically be justified, although it would call for a larger universal ban on religious articles (including crosses or habits) in order to be consistent. However, the particulars of that law are not important. The problem with the burqa in this particular instance is the apparent hypocrisy with which the French government has dealt. Going against traditional French standards of laïcité, Sarkozy has praised Christianity’s contribution to France, advocated for a relaxation of laïcité, and sanctioned the role of religion in the public sphere, while simultaneously promoting a ban on the burqa – a targeted policy, and a dangerous double-standard.
As with the headscarf (hijab) in 2004, the burqa has come to represent a larger issue – the question of Islamism in French society. John Bowen, author of the book “Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves” (2006), argues that one of the underlying issues surrounding the headscarf was how to respond to Muslims who “demanded to be different” and dared to “defy older cultural notions” of France. However, when analyzing the public’s reasoning behind banning the hijab in secular schools, there were three categories of social concerns: communalism, Islamism, and sexism. These three social concerns not only reflect the reluctance of France to accept immigrant groups (and indeed, their policy of assimilation has been individual rather than group-focused), but also indicate the larger divide between the West and Islam, particularly in their cultural values.
Why do women choose to wear the burqa? Or do they choose? In order to better understand the reasons for wearing the burqa, I turned to my Muslim friends to explain. Moniza Masud, the president of the Muslim Students Association in the greater East Bay of California, argues that the burqa has a more “cultural significance, rooted in historical context, than is attributed to it today.” She suggests that the question of wearing the burqa is rooted in an idea more encompassing than whether women are oppressed, and that in many instances it’s a woman’s autonomous decision to wear a burqa on grounds of modesty. The Qur’an, for instance, does not explicitly mandate that women wear a burqa. The closest that it comes can be found in the following lines:
“Oh prophet, please tell your wives and daughters and faithful women to wear a covering dress on their bodies. That would be good. Then nobody can recognize them and harass them. Allah is merciful and kind.” (Sura Al Hijaab 33:59)
This article is not going to discuss whether the Qur’an promotes gender equality, or whether it’s fair for a woman to cover up to avoid being seen as a lustful figure while men do not have to be subjected to the same treatment. (For that debate, you can see my Monday blog post on feminisms and the burqa.) The question of wearing a burqa seems to be more cultural than religious – however, the problem is that in many Muslim countries, it is difficult to draw the distinction between the cultural and the religious. Islam dictates that women should cover themselves up, but the extent to which they are covered is debatable. Leaving the issue of whether the burqa itself is inherently oppressive out of the question – I don’t believe that a garment that covers a woman’s face and makes her indistinguishable is harmful for her identity – but if women are not forced to wear the burqa, implementing a blanket policy in France to ban the burqa strictly under a guise of women’s freedoms or anti-Islamism would be discriminatory to women because there would be no way to distinguish whether they had been forced or obliged by culture to wear a burqa, or whether they had chosen to wear it autonomously – it would be a blanket assertion that no women want to wear the burqa based on what Sarkozy believes, which is inherently anti-choice.
While there are a great deal of other concerns regarding France’s decision to ban the burqa, at least one thing has been made clear – this controversy has opened multiple avenues of discussion regarding religion, culture, nationalism, identity, feminisms, women’s rights, national security concerns, and the appropriate role of government in regards to individual rights. While the French government has yet to enact a policy based on the recommendations of the parliamentary panel, hopefully they will delve into a greater consideration of the religious and historical context of the decision to inform their case.