Nicolas Sarkozy has made a serious pronouncement, ya’ll: burquas are not welcome in France. Nope. They’re not. Sarkozy has already said that Muslim girls can’t wear a hajib to school, and now he’s saying that the burqua is out, too. The London Telegraph is reporting:
Mr Sarkozy used the first presidential address to a joint session of France’s two houses of parliament in 136 years to declare his support for a ban, even before hearing from a parliamentary commission set up to study the issue.
“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” Mr Sarkozy told the special session in Versailles.
“That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.
“The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic,” the French president said.
Wow. There are so many problems with those comments, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there’s the overly nationalistic tone to Sarkozy’s statement. The whole idea of a unified French republic is so problematic. But I’m not French, so I’m not really in a position to criticize here.
My biggest problem is that Sarkozy is using a very myopic view of the burqua and veiling. Don’t get me wrong – the imposition of the burqua by the Taliban is definitely an instance of women’s rights being trampled. Any time the ruling party tries to tell women what they can or can’t wear, it is a form of patriarchy. (Mr, Sarkozy, are you listening?) However, we need to remember that the burqua has also been used as a tool for women’s liberation. Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, was one of the first to start wearing the burqua before she was assassinated. The burqua offered RAWA activists to go undercover because it offered anonymity, and it was only worn by the most conservative Muslims in Afghanistan. Who would suspect a woman in a burqua of being a revolutionary?
Nevertheless, the image of a helpless woman in a burqua was drummed up to gain support of the US military invasion of Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001. Laura Bush took her place on the world stage, saying that the women of Afghanistan were oppressed because they couldn’t eat ice cream or wear nail polish. That was true in the early 1990′s, and where was the international community’s outrage when RAWA and other women’s rights organizations were asking for help then? Women’s rights only seem to matter when they provide a convenient excuse for militarism. That’s patriarchy, ya’ll.
My criticism isn’t limited to Sarkozy’s comments about the burqua, though. I’m also critical of France’s 2004 ban on the hajib. Chandra Talapade Mohanty has an excellent essay called “Under Western Eyes“, where she criticizes Western feminists for rejecting the practice of the veiling entirely out of hand because they view it as a symbol of female oppression. Mohanty correctly argues that there are different levels of veiling throughout the Muslim world and that the veil symbolizes different things to different people. There is no monolithic Muslim culture, and the act of veiling has changed throughout time depending on the local customs and circumstances. It is particularly relevant to bring this up in light of the massive protests occurring in Iran. During the revolution in Iran that happened in the 1970′s, veiling became a symbol of resistance. How, then, can we decry the use of the veil if it is a sign of liberation for many people?
The question here is one of choice. If a woman like Meena chooses to wear the burqua because she wants to hide herself away from prying eyes, she should have that right. If a young girl wants to wear the hajib to school because she is devout in her faith, she should have that right. It’s not the place of the government to tell women how they should dress themselves. The Taliban was wrong, and so is Mr. Sarkozy.