Sarkozy's solution to 'burqa problem' as unjust as decrees that impose the garment
French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently condemned the burqa, the full-body garment worn by many Muslim women throughout the Islamic world. Before both houses of parliament, Sarkozy declared: "The burqa is not a religious sign — it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement "¦ It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic." He has endorsed a new law that would ban the burqa along with its slightly less impairing relative, the niqab.
This development prompts the question: Should a nation allow secularism and women's rights to override religious tolerance? My answer: Not this time, and not in this way.
Sarkozy's depiction of the burqa is half-correct. Muslims employ this heavy, suffocating body bag as both a "religious sign" and as a sign of Muslim women's culturally enforced "subservience." Suspiciously, the Koran never mentions the burqa, although it does mention the need for women to dress modestly. Does it matter? The point is that many Muslims continue to dignify the burqa despite its dubious doctrinal foundation.
Evidence abounds suggesting the burqa's damage to the psychology of the woman forced to wear it, not to mention the damage to her body. Example: Many burqa-clad Muslim women lose their hair and teeth due to a lack of Vitamin D, a result of prolonged concealment from sunlight.
To be sure, the burqa is rich with historical meaning and import. During the French occupation of Algeria, for instance, the burqa became an expression of Muslim women's anti-colonial protest. Some contemporary Muslim women whole-heartedly embrace the burqa as a symbol of religio-cultural identity, of their commitment to modesty and to God. (Even so, one cannot help wondering who among these women, given full access to information on gender equality, would voluntarily wear it.)
It isn't the burqa itself that is offensive to Western sensibilities but its compulsory aspect in Islamic culture, enshrined in the barbaric dress codes of such nations as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and in the southern region of Afghanistan. Women in these nations discard the burqa at their peril and are often swiftly disciplined for violating the principle of "hijab."
The practice of Muslim men imposing the burqa on their wives and daughters typifies the mainstream Islamic perception of women in those nations and elsewhere: a dissonant blend of temptress and treasured object. A burqa-clad woman is like a collector's item that must remain in its package lest it spoil. That Muslim men feel honor-bound to defend this practice reaches beyond the idiosyncrasy of a religious dress code. It reaches beyond sexism. The burqa, as an exclusively female burden, is a symbol of unchecked irrationality driven to a vile, idiotic and heartbreaking extremity. It is dogmatism and misogyny made manifest in gender oppression while wrapped in the guise of submission to God's will.
Yet I cannot support Sarkozy's solution to the "burqa problem" — a solution that, despite Sarkozy's noble utterances, seems little more than a disguised attempt to forcibly integrate Muslims into a culture that is losing its secular identity. Sarkozy, ironically, is dabbling in the very fascism that is essential to Islamism. His solution is as unjust and authoritarian as the Islamic decrees that impose the burqa in the first place. Both policies represent an overreach of state control. Neither decision, to veil or to unveil, should be made for Muslim women.
Furthermore, an anti-burqa law may ultimately create more mischief than prevent it. Right-wing crackdowns of this kind invariably produce unfortunate side effects. France's 2004 ban on headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools drove Muslim girls into parochial Islamic schools that oppose the French values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Similarly, banning the burqa may result in the confining of Muslim women to their homes. This is not progress.
The internal contradiction of French secularism remains. How exactly does a culture promote tolerance without tolerating intolerance, particularly intolerance of the religious order?
Perhaps I'm suffering from incurable idealism, but I'd like to imagine that new laws aren't needed to actualize Muslim integration into secular culture. What Islam needs is a progressive shift in its collective consciousness, an enlightenment of sorts, whereby the act of imposing the burqa becomes as socially repugnant as wife beating in American culture. Muslim men who do impose the burqa would then have to pay a price for it in committing social suicide.
Parliament may grant Sarkozy's wish. But the president's ends do not justify his means. And if Muslim integration is consequently achieved in France, it will be for the wrong reason.
Erick Bengel graduated from Southern Oregon University in June with a degree in English and a minor in philosophy.