Woman wearing a burqa in Le Bourget, France. Image Credit: NPR/Getty Images

The issue of banning the burqa in France has generated so much heat over the past few months that one would assume the ban had already come into effect. Not so. Since French President Nicolas Sarkozy famously stated that, “the burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women…it will not be welcome on our territory,” a parliamentary panel has spent the past six months looking into why Muslim women wear the burqa, and what it means for France.

The 170 page report released today recommends the burqa be banned in all public spaces such as schools and hospitals, but does not make it illegal to wear on the streets or in “private buildings.” The panel had to be very careful with their stipulations because a full ban would have been unconstitutional.

Of course all this fuss over what a small minority of Muslim women in France are forced, or in some cases choose to wear is just a fraction of the much larger issue of Muslim integration in Europe. France has ample reason to be worried. The country has the largest Muslim population in Europe and Islam is the second largest religion in France. The French are known for taking pride in their secular culture.

The burqa is a garment which has become synonymous with women’s oppression in Islam, but we have got to be kidding ourselves if we think banning it has anything to do with the liberation of Muslim women. Sarkozy can talk as much as he wants about how much the burqa subjugates women, but his policies are not going to bring them emancipation.

I think Sarkozy’s real motives are to protect and preserve secular French culture. He wants to stop French identity from being Islamicized. In the process, Sarkozy is sending a very clear message to future Muslim immigrants: You want to move to France? Then be ready to let go of your ways, and take on ours. The burqa is a very visual and tangible symbol, easy to target.

Ironically, Islamic extremists also use the burqa as a tool to express their power, and make their presence felt. I am from Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populated Muslim countries, where radical Islam has slowly but surely been rising over the years. Growing up, you could count on your hands the number of women you saw veiled let alone burqa-clad.

Nowadays, the numbers are astounding. Billboards that use to advertise colorful saris show women covered in black, with only the sliver of their eyes exposed. When the extremists want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than covering up and restricting the visibility of women.

Sarkozy is doing something very similar, but in the opposite way by telling women they cannot wear the burqa. He can use the whole “it is a subjugation of women” language as much as he wants, but do we really think that Sarkozy is formulating policy to fight for the rights of Muslim women? If he was, he would factor in the issue of how many French Muslim women may not be allowed to go to schools, may be denied medical care, and have their mobility curbed in general because their (sexist) male guardians may not allow them out of the house without the burqa. We are seeing women’s bodies being exploited for political purposes.

The truth of the matter is France has to address its larger issue of Muslim integration instead of making a false case about Muslim women’s rights. Banning the burqa is not going to force Muslim women to wear tank tops and voila! suddenly become more French. In reality, it could have quite the opposite effect, marginalizing Muslim minorities and forcing them to become more extreme in their beliefs as they see them come under attack.

*This post of mine was also published on National Public Radio (NPR).

6 comments

  1. This is an interesting post. I think on the whole you’re right. However, I do take issue with this part:

    “I think Sarkozy’s real motives are to protect and preserve secular French culture. He wants to stop French identity from being Islamicized. In the process, Sarkozy is sending a very clear message to future Muslim immigrants: You want to move to France? Then be ready to let go of your ways, and take on ours.”

    Is this a problem? This is how it has always been in France. French first, anything else second. It’s cultural and historically may have been enforced from the government from time to time but you will find most French people agree with this idea. It isn’t America where there’s a “melting pot” ideal (from the French perspective, you could call it “fragmented pot”).

    I live in France, and frankly my impression is that most Muslims in France are well integrated. I very rarely see women wearing burqas, ever (although I don’t live in Marseille, but neither does Sarko). There aren’t any radical imams that spring to mind, or conflicting rules of law (compare with England, for example). The culture of French-first works. As an atheist, I am not really concerned if Muslims are not allowed to wear their garments in government places following the idea of laïcité, so long as all other religious groups are equally disallowed.

    So, this entire issue seems really overblown (from Sarko’s side), but I can understand French reticence to accept anything other than integration of foreigners into their society rather than bending to accomodate the foreigners. If Sarko couches his ideas in female-liberation language, then it just shows that he, and France, and frankly Europe as a whole doesn’t know how to address this problem clearly yet.

  2. DuMans, thank you for your comment. In response to your question, no it is not a problem in regards to if you want to move to France then be ready to let go of your ways. My point is that is then that is what Sarkozy should say- as loudly and as clearly as he wants. He should not bother trying to pretend to act like some liberator of Muslim women. Hiding behind language of how the burqa forces Muslim women into submission is not what his real issue is. I am not pro-burqa by any means, but Sarkozy is not some savior for Muslim women, so he should not even bother to pretend to be. Nobody is buying it. Let’s keep this discussion of the burqa ban on point- it is about preserving France’s secular identity. The end.

  3. I need something cleared up – France is still a democracy is it not – with freedom of choice and what not?

    How can you ban someone from expressing religious views through clothing? Doesn’t that take away from the whole point of being free?

  4. “Doesn’t that take away from the whole point of being free?”

    No. The French point of view is based on laïcité, secularism. Their interpretation is that the government should not be seen to sponsor any religion, so wearing any large obvious religious symbols should be banned from government public places (hospitals, schools, government office buildings, etc). In the street, elsewhere in “public”, there isn’t a problem.

    Take a look at the opposite approach of the US, where government is seen to be sponsoring religion all the time, thus alienating large segments of the population who feel bullied into not expressing their “freedom”. I prefer the French approach.

    Out of 5 million Muslims in France, only 1,900 wear the burqa. IMO this is quite the trumped up issue because it’s an election year and it’s easy to align yourself with traditional Vieille France and win votes by questioning what it means to be “French”.

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