EIGHT months ago (and 10 months before regional elections were due to be held all over the country), French president Nicolas Sarkozy raised a vital issue before the French parliament.
Not the financial meltdown that was undermining the world’s economies, nor the threat of climate change, nor even the rash of bike thefts in Paris. He wanted to ban the burqa.
“The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem,” he told French legislators in June last year. “This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience… I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France.”
The next day parliament created a 32-member cross-party committee to investigate whether wearing the burqa violates the principles of the French constitution.
The burqa is a shroud-like full-body covering worn in public by some Muslim women who take (or whose husbands or fathers take) an extremely conservative view on the need for female “modesty”. The wearer sees the world only through a narrow grill of cotton threads sewn into the front of the garment, or, in the case of the variant called the niqab, through an open slit that reveals only the eyes.
The parliamentary committee discussed the issue of the burqa for six months, and delivered its conclusions two weeks ago.
It did not propose to ban the burqa entirely, but recommended that women wearing burqas be forbidden to enter schools, hospitals, and government offices or to use public transportation.
Thus a bus-driver, for example, could refuse to let a burqa-clad woman board the bus to collect her children from school.
What useful purpose could such a law serve? Some of the women wearing burqas presumably do so of their own free will, while others are forced to do so by their male relatives. An anti-burqa law would violate the rights of the first group, and increase the likelihood that the second group will be entirely confined to their homes.
But the proposed law is not really designed to liberate some Muslim women from their burqas.
It is meant to appeal to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim voters, who are mainly on the right in France, by demonstrating the government’s determination to force the country’s Muslim minority to integrate with the rest of the population.
The French parliament cannot move fast enough to pass such a law before the regional elections are held in March, but the committee’s report ensures that an ugly debate about immigrants will be raging during the election campaign.
It is part of the same disturbing trend in Europe that saw Swiss voters ban minarets in a referendum last year, and Dutch legislators vote in favour of banning the burqa in 2005. (The Dutch government lost an election before a law was passed.)
It is estimated that between three to six million (5-10 %) of France’s 64 million people are Muslims. It is also estimated that only 1 900 women in France wear burqas, mostly in the immigrant suburbs around Paris and other big French cities. That is less than one Muslim woman in a thousand.
This is not really about burqas (which almost half of the French population say that they never see). I
t is about mobilising right-wing voters — and to energise them even more, Sarkozy declared a “great debate” on French identity last November. His motives are cynical and his methods are manipulative, but since he has raised the issue, what about it?
Is wearing a burqa compatible with being the citizen of a modern democracy?
The “republican” tradition of revolutionary France says no. Citizenship is defined not so much by individual rights, as in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, as by public participation in the political process. Since the burqa is specifically designed to cut the wearer off from the public sphere of life, it violates the republican tradition. But this isn’t really about political theory.
If you have not been accustomed to it since childhood, there is unquestionably something disturbing about encountering masked people (for that is what the burqa and niqab produce) in a public space.
The wearers’ gender and your own common sense will tell you that they are not dangerous people, but they are and will remain apart, almost alien, rejecting the common society that everyone else shares.
That is not ideal, but it must be tolerated in societies that accept and embrace every other kind of diversity.
Fadela Amara, a Muslim-born women’s rights campaigner and a minister in Sarkozy’s government, has called the burqa “a kind of tomb for women”, but she has no right to impose her view on those who freely choose to wear it.
That does not take account of the other women (probably a majority) who wear it only in obedience to their men, but this is not a matter on which legislation can be effective.
Ban the burqa, and those women will simply become full-time prisoners in their own houses. Besides, Sarkozy is not really trying to free those women. He is just trying to win the regional elections by stirring up anti-Muslim feeling.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.