For Burqa Choice, Against Sarkozy
Led by President Sarkozy, France is gearing up to declare war on the burqa, a special head-to-toe cloak many conservative Muslim women use to cover up their entire bodies (for many Islamic cultures, this practice is a means of protecting their “honor,” a complex and often troubling concept).
Hailed by many as a blow against sexism and the fundamentalist oppression of women, the rhetoric and its inevitable conclusion (government restrictions on whether and where women may wear a burqa) is well-meaning… and deeply wrong. Governments simply shouldn’t be attempting to legislate interpretations, to censor ambiguous symbolism, or restrict religious expression that people may find offensive. It’s precisely the wrong way to combat the right problem.
France has always gone too far in this regard: their idea of secularism is to ban religious expression from the public square, rather than simply draw the line at official government endorsement of any particular religious belief or practice. Here in the US, we believe in reasonable accommodation: bending some public rules to allow personal religious practice to peacefully coexist with civil society (i.e. exempting, say, a Sikh turban from a bans on headwear in a court or public school). But France, far from seeking accommodation, takes a positive zeal in attacking religious expression for its own sake: it already severely restricts the wearing of the Muslim hijab in public institutions.
Mr. Sarkozy said that “in the republic, the Muslim religion must be respected like other religions.” But he declared, “the burqa is not welcome in France.” He added, “We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity.”
There can be no doubt at all that the burqa symbolizes the oppression of women. But the necessary addendum to such statements is “for many.” Because objects, dress, and practices in the are always interpretations, never known, obvious, or clear statements. And we should always be wary of government-imposed certainty on what any given practice, article of clothing, or anything other sort of expression “means,” even if we don’t like the most common implications or message. It’s up to the people engaging in a practice and those they interact with to argue over the meaning of their acts, and these arguments are about personal expression, not a matter of law. Laws banning the burqa would even, ironically, ban the wearing one to protest its spread.
Interpretations are personal. You may not like them. You may suspect that they are deluded. But that’s an argument to be made, not a government policy to enforce. The reality is that many Muslim women sincerely feel that religiously and culturally endorsed restrictions on sexualized dress enhance actually their individuality rather than detracting from it, as Sarkozy claims. Instead of being sex symbols judged primarily by the condition of their bodies, the burqa supposedly frees them to present themselves by their words and actions alone.
Maybe you feel that interpretation is stupid. Maybe you find it compelling. I find it interestingly plausible on the surface but suspect in practice and motive. But the point is: take those disagreements up in person with the women in question, make the arguments to them, the ones who actually get up in the morning and put on whatever clothing they choose with their own hands.
I’m not any more in favor of anyone wearing a burqa than I am in favor of someone sporting a mullet, because they both look pretty stupid. And I’m all for combating fundamentalism and radicalism in the name of equality. But none of that should obscure the principle that Muslim women themselves should have a right to wear whatever they want, and then decide for themselves what that means.
The fact that many are forced to wear the burqa because of coercive and sexist attitudes in their families and cultures is terrible: that is the problem at hand. But a government coercing them into not wearing one is really no better. Neither extreme is actually defending the women’s liberty: both are simply forcibly demanding the use of women’s bodies and dress to express this or that political and ideological view.
The real issue here that these women’s families (including in many cases their own female relatives) and communities have the desire and often even the impunity to threaten ostracization and outright violence. And it’s that coercive violence and oppression that a government like France has an obligation to fight.
But politicizing the burqa itself, acknowledging and penalizing it as the symbol of oppression, specifically puts nearly all of the focus and burden of fighting its sexist connotations directly on the victims of that sexism rather than its perpetrators. It demands that the very women who are already most vulnerable either risk murder and rape or else contort their public lives to conform to government demands (by, for instance, having to avoid government schools and buildings, as many Muslims wearing the hijab have done). It lets the real bullies, who are not so easily identifiable by their choice of dress, escape notice.
France’s next step is to empower a “commission” to study the burqa and ways to combat the cultural attitudes that surround it. That’s benign enough, but if Sarkozy’s rhetoric and past experience of French hostility to religious dress are any guide, harsher restrictions or even public bans will be soon to follow. Before that happens, let’s hope that commission realizes that the battle here should be one over hearts and minds rather than the length of a robe.