The debate over whether to ban the burqa in France is something I’ve been following for a while. I am more an anglophile than a francophile, but I am familiar with French culture and find this fascinating.
In France, the creation and maintenance of a national identity supersedes religious identity. During the French revolution, when ‘Madame la Guillotine’ was continually sated with the heads of the French bourgeoisie, the slogan “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (liberty, equality, fraternity) originated. This slogan was meant to represent a France of equals, of citizens who put their citizenship above all else.
In 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy tapped into this nationalist sentiment with a proposal to ban the burqa in public areas, saying that the burqa is a sign of female subservience that has no place in French society, and that French citizenship is only possible with an uncovered face.
However, many months of debate have left the ban undecided, and Muslim leaders have condemned Sarkozy for his so-called discrimination against their religion. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, so the government risks alienating a large contingent with the ban. In 2004, France banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools, which was seen as an attack against veils and headscarves. To the government, banning the burqa is the next step.
The problem with the proposed ban is the sense of vulnerability and a sort of reverse oppression Muslim women might feel if forced to remove their burqas. The burqa represses women in the sense that their bodies must be hidden from view in order not to tempt men; it panders to the notion that men’s desires often get the better of their judgment while allowing men to be absolved from responsibility for acting on these desires because women are to blame. However, Muslim women who have grown up with the burqa have admitted to reporters that they would feel naked without it. The ban could also encourage more women to don the burqa in protest.
French police will not force women to remove the burqa if confronted, but they will send a warning and a fine to women’s homes. The government has cited the burqa as the cause of many obstacles to what it considers an open society, including matters of equality and security. The primary issue, which Sarkozy has repeatedly addressed, is that the burqa refutes France’s vision of equality for all its citizens. Women are objectified and reduced to a mass of body parts, which must be covered in order to protect men from their baser desires. This does not correspond with French ideals of freedom and brotherhood/sisterhood.
There is also the issue of security. The events of September 11, 2001 have changed airport security all over the world. Multiple forms of identification are a necessity, and full-body scanners are on their way toward ubiquity, so the purpose of the burqa, to hide the face and body, makes security a challenge. These challenges also apply to everyday life and the maintenance of public order. Recognition of an individual is both necessary for security and a basic right in French society.
To the French government, banning the burqa is not meant to deny Muslims the right to practice their religion. France considers itself open to all forms of religious expression, save for those that conflict with the basic rights and standards of behavior associated with a French identity. Though Sarkozy considers banning the burqa a step towards a more united France, the ban might cause a rift in French society too large to be properly mended.
*’Madame la Guillotine’ is from The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. An action, romance, suspense, adventure story with British expressions and political intrigue. Read it. You won’t be sorry.