09/16/2010 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Not to Wear: Dictating Islamic Fashion in France

Over the summer, I took a brief vacation to Paris. The biggest problem I have when I vacation is leaving my day job behind, and as a religion scholar with particular interest in the place of Islam in modern Europe, my hijab and burqa radars were on high while in France. After all, the debate over the wearing of veils in France is followed throughout the world.

After spending three full days walking the streets of Paris, including a significant part of one day in the neighborhood around the Grand Mosque of Paris, I tallied up the number of burqas I saw. The total was zero. Well, make that one if you include niqabs (similar to burqas, but they leave a slit around the eyes). The evidence is certainly anecdotal, and my visit all too short to get a better picture, but on the surface, it really didn't seem as if France had a major burqa problem.

Most estimates of the number of burqa-wearers in France, approximately 2,000 (if that many) out of five to six million Muslims, reinforce my observations. This is not a common garment worn by Muslim women, and yet the government's campaign against burqas and niqabs in public places, culminating in Tuesday's ban, has been aggressive. This is reminiscent of Switzerland's ban on minarets last November, even though the country has only four minarets, none of which is used for the call to prayer. A trend is emerging in parts of Europe when it comes to banning Islamic symbols that, depending on the region, scarcely exist to begin with.

What is the motivation behind these bans? In the case of France, why ban burqas if they are hardly even worn? The ostensible reason, according to government officials, if not many in the non-Muslim population, is the preservation of republican values, particularly equality of the sexes. The burqa symbolizes the oppression of women. As President Nicolas Sarkozy stated last year, the burqa is "a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women."

On one level, I don't deny the sincerity of the French government or many in France to want to safeguard women's rights and women's equality. But the real quandary with this new law and with the overwhelming sentiment against Islamic veils of any kind is that the very attempt to protect women's freedom ultimately results in an infringement upon this freedom.

I do believe that in those instances in which Muslim women are forced to wear a burqa or niqab, the law should protect them and preserve their freedom to choose what to wear and what not to wear. This law does just that, imposing a severe penalty on anyone who coerces a woman to wear a burqa. The guilty party could be fined a maximum of €30,000 and could face up to one year in prison.

But what about those Muslim women (and again, there are not that many) who choose to wear a burqa or niqab? To take one example, Kenza Drider, a French citizen of Moroccan heritage who wears a niqab and insists that it "symbolizes my freedom of expressing my religion." She adds, "The niqab is my dignity, my spirituality and my submission to God." The new law strips her of this freedom. Should she refuse to abide by the law, she would face a smaller fine (up to €150), but it would be a penalty nonetheless. And she might be required to take government-sponsored courses on "republican values" to remedy her behavior. The question that remains, of course, is whether the free exercise of religion can still be included as one of these values.

While many in France may have genuine concerns about equality of the sexes, the burqa ban is really less about preserving women's freedom and more about the underlying discomfort that many in France have over the growth of Islam and the increasing assertion of Muslim identity in the public sphere. The greater the visibility of Islam, the greater the perceived threat to French identity, because the operating assumption is that the two identities cannot be reconciled. One is French first; religious identity must take a back seat. This applies particularly to Islam, though as the 2004 parliamentary ban on religious symbols in public schools revealed, Judaism (no yarmulkes) and Christianity (no prominent crosses) must also make way for French identity. But with Islam, the threat is considered greater because of commonplace essentialist definitions that characterize it as inherently violent, oppressive, and anti-democratic.

France, like much of Western Europe, is suffering from an identity crisis, and the political response increasingly is to restrict the free exercise of religion so as to preserve an identity that is defined against Islam. But banning burqas or attempting to push Islam out of the public sphere will not strengthen French identity. The ban will only reinforce France's reputation as an intolerant country whose leaders appear unwilling and incapable of engaging in sincere dialogue with Muslim citizens or building bridges between a largely secular population and Islam. And it will coerce some 2,000 Muslim women to adopt a behavior and lifestyle that conflicts with their deepest religious convictions.

France's reputation for setting fashion trends has existed for centuries. The new burqa ban is yet one more attempt to shape attitudes on what people should and should not wear. But if endeavors to integrate France's Muslim population are to move forward, the French government needs to spend less time dictating Islamic fashion and more time listening to its Muslims citizens articulate their own understandings of what it means to be loyal both to Islam and to the republic.