French President, Nicolas Sarkozy announced Monday that the burqa will no longer be welcome within the country. Although the commentary was only a small part of a larger address by the president to French lawmakers at Versailles, Sarkozy spoke out strongly against the burqa, calling the head-to-toe garment a "sign of subservience".
We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity.
This is not the idea the French Republic has of a woman's dignity.
According to a recent article in the London Standard, "Mr Sarkozy's government announced last week that it would seek to set up a parliamentary commission that could propose legislation aimed at barring Muslim women from wearing head-to-toe gowns outside the home."
Although Sarkozy's intentions seem noble, the course of action that the French government is pursuing actually deprives women of their liberties. The planned regulation of women's dress won't necessarily have any positive effect on intramarital relations. It does, however, create a rationale for controlling husbands to keep their wives at home more. Alternatively, an uncovered wife might induce more aggressive behavior from a jealous husband not accustomed to sharing his wife with the eyes of others or worried about the toll her increased public role might have on his family honor.
Most importantly though, the institution of a burqa ban compromises a woman's ability to stay true to her religious and spiritual beliefs. By dictating what is "appropriate" for French women to wear, the regulatory committee on the subject is less liberating its targets than acting as the warden of its own narrow-minded idea of freedom. If the intention is to change the behavior of Muslim men towards their wives, why should this new legislation be aimed at Muslim women?
The movement toward a burqa-free state becomes increasingly counter-intuitive when one considers France's colonial history and concern with women's dress. In his essay, "Algeria Unveiled", Martinique-born post-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, details the struggle of occupying forces within the country as they worked to quell the unrest instigated by Algerian pro-independence groups. Faced with a contingent of female guerrilla fighters, the colonizing forces gathered a group of marginalized Algerian women (servants, prostitutes, and the poor) in a public square and forcibly unveiled them. As a means of protest, Algerian women who had previously shed the haik -- the Algerian equivalent of the burqa-- took it up again as an affront to French colonizers.
Of course, Sarkozy's France is no longer the heavy-handed occupier that it once was, but its bias against immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East has certainly endured. In the face of France's modern day struggle with Islamic dress (including the ban on head scarves in public schools) and its historic context, the symbolism of the veil as a protection of Muslim expression remains.
Although France proudly claims its longstanding tradition of secularism, Sarkozy's most recent parliamentary address has only served to make clear the state's intolerance of Islamic practices and beliefs. The women who will be affected by the deliberations of the burqa committee are shopping for groceries and picking up dry-cleaning, not running for state office. The committee is sending the message to the French public that a person cannot simultaneously be a French citizen and a conservative Muslim. A choice must be made between religious and nationalistic identities.
It is no wonder then that French women who have previously chosen to don the niqab or the burqa as a symbol of their Muslim identity might feel less than liberated at Sarkozy's announcement. Perhaps instead France should require that the husbands of women who wear burqas also don the heavy garments. Given, the idea is equally as ridiculous as outlawing them altogether, but at least it would be targeting the right party.
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