At President Sarkozy’s request, the French parliament has established a bipartisan panel to study ways of restricting the burqa in French society, including an outright ban on wearing it in public. Calling the garment “a sign of subservience [and] debasement” for women, Sarkozy boldly declared that the burqa “is not welcome in France.”
Host to Europe’s largest Muslim population—about 5 million people—French society has long debated whether the garment is an affront to women's rights and to the nation’s hard-won secular tradition. Although it’s been outlawed in schools and other public buildings since 2004, Muslims in France are increasingly adopting the trend. So the rest of world is watching the escalating debate with keen interest, and many western nations are asking the same questions as France.
So although I've always disliked the burqa on principle, I'd mentally put it in the same box as the wigs and shapeless black clothing of the Hassidim. I thought What’s the big deal? You just have to get used to it. Then I met a Muslim woman who wore a burqa, and in the course of 20 minutes my perspective shifted 180 degrees.
She was very nice. Warm and intelligent. Charming, even. But the longer we spoke, the more uncomfortable I became. And to my surprise, the main thing I felt was resentment. I couldn’t read her at all. Although she had very expressive eyes, I was missing an entire level of communication with her. She, on the other hand, had access to every nuance of my body language, my facial expressions, and my intonation. It was like being blind, except that it was she who had intentionally blinded me.
But my resentment went deeper. I would never go to the Middle East and expect to sunbathe on the beach or wear a skirt and high heels in public. Aside from the threat of arrest, imprisonment and corporal punishment, it would be disrespectful. Just as I, a non-Catholic, would cover my head if I met the Pope, and would curtsy if I met Queen Elizabeth, I wouldn’t visit a Muslim country and deliberately ignore its customs. Yet there she stood, ignoring our cultural norms while blithely taking for granted that we would respect hers.
In western society, we meet face-to-face. In fact, aside from Halloween and costume parties, covering your face is considered hostile and aggressive. And frankly, in an age of terrorism against all things Western, the burqa arouses an emotional response akin to the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s just nothing defensible about the symbolism.
Let’s be clear: All the rhetoric about whether the burqa is demeaning to women is just hot air inflaming—and sidetracking—the debate. Despite Sarkozy’s claims, the proposed ban is not actually about rescuing Muslim women from oppression. Or rather, if it is, it’s the weakest argument imaginable. The fact is, some women do embrace the burqa, while others have it forced upon them. It’s impossible for an outsider to distinguish between the two, and naive to believe that anyone can legislate those attitudes.
In reality, the ban effort is actually about something far more tangible—insisting that Muslims respect western cultural norms of openness and equality when in western society, just as they require others to respect their norms when in Muslim countries. When it’s okay for me to wear a mini skirt and high heels in Saudi Arabia, then I’ll be okay with burqas in western societies.
Let’s also be clear that the burqa has nothing to do with religious freedom. The Koran merely requires that women dress modestly—it doesn’t delineate a dress code, much less dictate a burqa. Millions of Muslim women around the world interpret the modesty edict as loose fitting clothing and a head scarf.
That’s not to say that I can’t see the appeal of a burqa. When I’m having a bad hair day, or a pimple the size of Mt. Vesuvius, or monthly bloating, I’ve often wondered, Where’s my burqa? For those days when you can’t just "call in bitch," when you have no choice but to suck it up and go to work anyway, I’d love to haul out a burqa.
In fact I can imagine having several, in all my favorite colors—red, fuchsia and periwinkle, one to match my every mood. Maybe a bold geometric print in black-and-white for days when I’m feeling particularly inflexible—a signal that your day will probably go better if you just smile and let me have my way.
After all, there’s no reason a girl can’t be bloated and sassy.
Twittering vixenish things @WriterVixen