Imagine a government so fascist and so sexist that it decrees a law on what women may wear in public. Our world's most prominent culprits in this area--Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-ruled valleys of Pakistan--may first spring to mind. In fact, though, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, twisting ideas of liberte beyond all recognition, has proposed just such a law.
Addressing parliament at the Palace of Versailles this week, he said that the burqa, a loose garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the whole body and face, "is not welcome in France." He endorsed a parliamentary commission to study the burqa and find ways to stop its spread. This is not a question of dressing the uniformed civil service or public school children; all conspicuous religious symbols have been banned in French schools since 2004. The president's new vision is to control what women may wear in the street.
France is not the only European country to have considered such an action as the formerly lily-white continent grapples with immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Cities in Belgium have banned face veils, and the Dutch government pondered, and in 2008 rejected, a general ban on face veils and burqas. Sarkozy, and supporters of similar bans, claim to be acting in the name of women's rights and dignity. Muslim culture, in this view, is the oppressor of women, and Sarkozy their rescuer.
It's hard to reconcile "rescue," though, with what he's doing. While the headscarf is a common sight in France, few women wear the full monty. Bashing burqa-wearers, therefore, may seem like an easy sop to the anti-immigrant far right, with few consequences. But in his pronouncement, Sarkozy has made women the victims yet again. To pass legislation banning a female garment strips women of more than just clothing: It takes away the individual right to freedom of expression. Just as freedom of expression must apply to everyone, including Nazis, or be meaningless, so it applies to "offensive" clothing.
The fact is, some women choose to veil, and some women choose to veil their entire bodies. Any government that considers itself a defender of liberty should no more ban the burqa than it should ban Sikh turbans (as the French have also sought to do) or punk rock gear. The logical outcome of Sarkozy's proposal is that policemen will find it their duty to confront veiled women--who have chosen their attire out of habit, tradition or religious belief--and order them to remove clothing or be hauled down to the station. Can this possibly be what the French want?
Maybe. France is by and large conformist, a place where it's more ostracizing to be unfashionable than it is to be Muslim. But that makes legislation even less necessary. Social pressure encourages submission to norms of appearance. Elevating the burqa to a banned object just endows it with more power. Wearing the veil can be as much a form of anti-government rebellion--in the secular dictatorship of Egypt, for example--as refusing to wear it in a place where it is mandated, like Iran.
Above all, we in the West need to end our prurient obsession with veils. Would-be enforcers of veil-wearing have an absurd preoccupation with women's sexuality. To get it out of their sight, they would deny women all rights. But the Western preoccupation with the veil-as-symbol is no less absurd. Clothing is of minuscule importance compared to the real issues that affect millions of Muslim women, like access to education, voting rights and combating domestic violence. There is a great deal that European governments can and should do for the women of their Muslim minorities, like vigorously enforcing national laws on divorce, age of marriage and mutilating one's kin.
Bans on the burqa, though, do nothing but get the burqa out of sight. They save sensitive secular Europeans from having to gaze upon reminders that not everyone shares their views. Legislating women's dress has nothing to do with liberty or feminism. It just makes women scapegoats, again.
Related posts from similar topics: