The French are enjoying a debate about their cultural identity. Obviously the word “enjoying” is a euphemism, since the focus of the debate, whether or not to ban the burqa — full female coverage with an eye screen — in public, has riven the population of France, and by no means along the obvious fault line of Muslim vs. non-Muslim.
Algerian-born Fadela Amara, France’s cities minister, reinforced her view in an interview with the Financial Times: “The vast majority of Muslims are against the burqa. It is obvious why. Those who have struggled for women’s rights back home in their own countries — I’m thinking particularly of Algeria — we know what it represents and what the obscurantist political project is that lies behind it, to confiscate the most fundamental liberties.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy had called for a ban on the public wearing of the burqa altogether. But as of this writing, apparently a compromise has been struck and the burqa will be banned in public buildings only.
A partial ban is better than nothing, though, and may hopefully serve to inject some steel into the spine of other European nations who feel threatened by the rise of anti-Western radicalization amongst their own growing Muslim populations.
Some pundits argue that the numbers of women in France in full coverage are small — in the low hundreds. But more recent estimates run much higher. A report by the minister of the interior conservatively estimates there are at least 2,000, not a nugatory figure, considering that 15 years ago there were virtually no niqabs or burqas in France. If they are not banned now, it may be impossible to do so when there are critical masses of them, as there surely will be as radicalization rates trend upward, if not checked.
Critics will claim that these garments do no harm to others and nobody has the right to interfere with women’s religious choices in a free society. But President Sarkozy got it right last June in explaining to Parliament why the burqa is “not welcome in the French Republic”: “The burqa is not a sign of religion; it is a sign of subservience.”
Sarkozy understands what most people refuse to acknowledge. Full coverage is not about religion; it is about ideology. Full face coverage is an ideological symbol of hatred for democracy, particularly the democratic value of gender equality. While some converts wear full cover as a badge of religious commitment and some educated Muslim young women wear it as a political gesture, by and large full cover goes hand in hand with women leading lives of grim physical and mental deprivation, and often routine, unchallenged, lifelong abuse.
Most women wearing the niqab or burqa can never aspire to a Western model of citizenship. They have not been provided with the kind of education or upbringing that would allow them to understand the meaning of freedom as we know it. It is insulting to the intellect to speak of women in these “walking coffins” in the same breath with the words “choice” or “rights.”
But to hold such rational views is to beat against a strong current of political correctness. As is now the norm whenever hypersensitive Muslim nerves are brushed by political decisions involving perceived insults to Islam, the French debate on cover as well as the recent referendum-driven ban on the further construction of minarets in Switzerland have provoked a great deal of hand-wringing anxiety amongst Islamophobia-phobic liberals.
Unwillingness to criticize the burqa, implying a corollary willingness to abandon these imprisoned women to their fate, even within Western borders, is morally tantamount to depraved indifference to voiceless suffering. Liberals hide behind the iron rubric of non-judgmentalism of other “cultures,” but that strain of logic would have absolved slave owners in the “culture” of pre-Civil War America.
Yet even conservatives who agree that fully covered women are chattel and a walking insult to American values struggle with the issue of legislative bans against what is misleadingly considered a garment. It seems draconian to prescribe what any individual can or cannot wear in public.
They must first understand that the burqa and niqab are not articles of clothing. They are tents thrown over clothing. In their intention and their effect, they perform the function of a ball and chain. Full cover is worn as a reminder to the wearer that she is not free and to remind the observer that the wearer is a possession, something less than a full human being.