Burqa ban, France and Sarkozy

To ban or not to ban?

Sanal Edamaruku

Afghan widow in Kabul, November 2001, United Nations World Food Program (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)
Afghan widow in Kabul, November 2001,
United Nations World Food Program (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

The French Government wants to ban the burqa, the Islamic full-body cloak that covers women from top to bottom and allows them only to look out through a mesh screen over their eyes. "In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," president Nicolas Sarkozy said in his address to a joint session of both the houses of parliament in the Chateau of Versailles to extended applause. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement — I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."

Secularism is not only a pillar of the French Constitution; it is the essence of modern civilization and has to be defended against all religious attempts to undo historical achievements. Defending its secular identity, France has always been an encouraging model for the side of freedom and progress. But can a democratic state simply ban a certain cloth because it is a sign of subservience, religious or otherwise? What about women who insist that it is their considered choice to hide their bodies and faces under this ominous gown? Shouldn’t they have the right to do so? On what grounds could they be stopped?

The case is different here than in it was in 2004, when France banned the hijab and other religious symbols from state schools. The concept of schools as protectorates, where all children are equal and cannot be touched by the claws of political, religious or family powers, is one of the best guarantees for a free society. And a secular “uniform”, bare of any religious power symbols, can contribute to create a climate that encourages young minds to form their own convictions and find their on way of life.

But the burqa ladies are responsible adults, French citizens or guests, who enjoy the right to individual liberty and self-determination. This includes the right to renounce their liberty. And if they chose a dress that looks like a mobile prison cell, so be it.

It is quite possible that they defend the burqa only out of unadmitted fear from family and community pressure and that they would clandestinely hive a sigh of relief if French state authority defeated Islamic family authority and set them free. But things need not be that simple. There may be other motives also, motives that may not comprehensible or acceptable for many of us.

Wearing burqa is not a fashion statement. It is submission to a dress code. Violating it may cause discomfort, even panic fear. This may be unrealistic in France, where no Taliban moral police can harass them, but the fear of breaking a socio-cultural taboo can be so deep-rooted that it survives the change of cultural context. In most societies public nakedness is the most powerful taboo. Being paraded naked is therefore one of the hardest torture methods. Many people are not able to overcome their inhibitions and enter a Finnish sauna, though nakedness is accepted here and does not pose any whatsoever danger. For some women who have never in their adult lives shown their faces in public, it may be equally hard to put down the veils. In such cases, friendly encouragement may be far more helpful than a cloth-down-order.

If Sarkozy’s intention is to help these women to liberate themselves – provided they wish to be helped at all – there would certainly be better methods than the ban. Discrete consultation could be helpful, a telephone helpline, financial support, safe houses, education and assistance in finding jobs. Such an offer should be made available to all others as well, male or female, who need a helping hand to break out of their private prisons.

But there is another side to it. The faceless mummies leave many fellow citizens uneasy and worried what sad, cruel and perhaps dangerous secrets their ominous garb may conceal. It is a scary encounter, not only because of the looming terrorist threat. For others it is offending to be forced to witness the degradation of a human into a faceless bundle of black cloth. It is like meeting humans in slavery chains or on dog leashes: deeply disturbing, an offence against civility, public decency and morale. If not backed by religious institutions or traditions, victims who fight for their chains run the risk of being branded mental patients.

Strangely, the more familiar sight of Christian nuns in their wrap ups, ancient execution equipment around their necks, does not disturb the public too much. If Sarkozy could manage to take an impartial look, they should be the next candidates for a ban. Regarding free choice, most nuns are not better off than their burqa sisters. They have been hapless under-aged girls, when they were pushed under the veil, and there was no return ticket. Unfortunately, Sarkozy’s impartiality is not beyond any doubt. “I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic faith…” he states in his book, ‘The Republic, Religions, and Hope’. As a Catholic he may be praying to Virgin Mary, who is in all traditional depictions shown covered by a veil. And if he decides to visit the Pope together with Carla Bruni, she would have to bow to the Vatican protocol that demands that visiting First Ladies be dressed in black and veiled. Prince Charles’ wife Camilla recently had to do so. Radical ‘secularist’ activism that turns a blind eye to one religion is not very convincing and can under certain circumstances even invite communalism – a dangerous message.

Looking at it politically, burqas are like banners symbolising Islamic fundamentalist triumph: a highly offensive and provocative signal for any secular society. If you try to force them down, they could multiply and produce martyrs. China was not very successful with the suppression of the Falung Gong, because in a country with a great contingent of unhappy citizens, even this obscure movement could emerge as a symbol of resistance and become a catalyst for serious unrest. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern secular and democratic Turkey, campaigned vigorously against burqa, but did not ban it when he implemented his broad political, social and cultural reforms in the spirit of enlightenment. He established laicity and equality of men and women in the young republic and created great enthusiasm, pride and hope. In a similar move, France once curbed the dominant influence of the all powerful Roman Catholic Church and established the lay society. Now it tries to defend its secular identity against the new religious wave of worldwide rising Islamic fundamentalism.

But is a burqa ban really the best defense? Islamic fundamentalists and their burqas are a tiny minority among Frances’ estimated five million immigrants from Muslim countries. If the French Government decides to crack down on them, the damage caused to a democratic society committed to the values of individual liberty and self-determination could outstrip the benefit. Ridding the public eye of the disturbing sight of a few willing victims of religious suppression does not solve the problem; it pushes it into the dark and out of control. Public education and the offer of support to those who want to come out would be in every respect a better solutionFrance: To ban or not to ban.