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France Tells Women What Not to Wear

By Laurie Penny

One of the few things that nearly all nations have in common is ideological control over women's bodies as political territory. The French government this week reasserted that control, mounting the latest in its string of socio-sartorial sallies against Muslim female dress, as André Gerin, backed by 57 other MPs, led calls for a nationwide ban of the burqa or full-body veil, declaring that 'the sight of these imprisoned women is intolerable to us...and unacceptable on French soil"

It's always a nice surprise to see a government trying to stick up for women. However, the main issue here seems to be not the rights of the women in question, but the fact that 'the sight of them' offends the delicate sensibilities of Gerin, President Sarkozy and other, mostly male politicians. The opinions of wearers of the burqa and other Islamic garments have not been sought, because they are irrelevant next to the objection of an overwhelmingly male administration to its female citizens covering too much flesh.

When I was seventeen I had to spend a summer in hospital, where I struck up a friendship with a fellow patient called Sara, a Saudi Muslim who smoked Italian cigarettes. When we were well enough to walk in the hospital gardens, Sara and I would spend long hours kvetching: she shared with me the privations of compulsory Islamic dress, whilst I lamented the pressure to constantly appear feminine and sexy that I experienced as a British teenager raised by atheists.

In the end, there was only one thing for it: we decided to swap clothes for a fortnight. Sara wore skintight tracksuits and her short, spiky hair uncovered; I wore an Abaya with full headscarf which she taught me to fold and tuck. What was striking was that when we took trips to the shops in our new gladrags, both of us felt immensely liberated: our bodies were finally our own, hers to show off as she pleased, mine to cover if I wanted. For the first time since puberty, I felt that people might be seeing the real me, rather than looking at my body. This flavour of freedom, which for some women is central to self-respect, is just as valid and important a choice as the freedom to go bare-legged and low-cut -- and a truly progressive Western culture would respect both.

Islamic culture is not mine to appropriate. I still enjoy wearing hijab, but out of respect to the many full-time veil-wearers in my area of London I only wear it around the house. Maybe that's weird - but it's no weirder than the many women who are happiest prancing around their living rooms in frilly underwear or, in the case of one particular friend of mine, eight-inch spike heels and a steel-bone corset.

These and many other options are, of course, only liberating if one is truly free to dress as one pleases. I'd object to being forced to wear a hijab, burqa, frilly knickers or any other garment on the basis of my gender as strenuously as I objected to the mandatory short skirts that formed part of my school uniform. What the French government seems not to have grasped is that the freedom to wear whatever little dress we like is not every woman's idea of the zenith of personal emancipation.

If the administration truly cares about women's personal and political sovereignty, instead of attacking the choices of minority ethnic groups it might start by inviting more females into government: on Tuesday, Sarkozy announced a cabinet reshuffle which reduced the number of women ministers to just four out of eighteen.

There are hundreds of points of action that feminists across Europe would prioritize above banning the burqa, were anyone to actually ask us. I'd start by increasing public provision of refuges and counseling for the hundreds of thousands of French victims of sexual abuse, forced marriage and domestic violence, rather than focusing state efforts on the fashion choices of the hundred or so women in the country who wear the full Islamic veil. After all, it's safe to say that any woman who is forced to wear a burqa against her will has problems that will not be solved by simply forbidding the garment.

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an Imam, an abusive partner or a government minister. The truth is that the way women choose to present themselves is still desperately political, in Islamic culture and wider society. In seeking to restrict the free choice of women to dress as they please, whether in a burqa, a bolero or a binbag, France is not protecting women but mounting a paranoid defense of its own right to determine feminine behavior.

Laurie Penny is a British journalist and contributor to LabourList.