Is the burqa a religious sign or a symbol of enslavement?
It’s both—and neither. In fact, the burqa is a culturally and religiously loaded Rorschach test. What might be the epitome of religious expression to one person might only symbolize systemic misogyny to another. That’s simply the way symbols work—an otherwise valueless object becomes laden with meaning based on the personal and cultural perspective of the observer. And attempts to qualify a symbol as being definitely one thing over another reveals much more about the observer than it does about the object itself.
So, what then has been revealed about French President Nicolas Sarkozy?
Yesterday, while addressing the French Parliament at the Palace of Versailles (the first time a president has done so since Bonaparte—in other words, a big deal), Sarkozy laid out his vision of France’s future—and that vision emphatically excluded the burqa. Sarkozy railed against the Islamic garment, denying any religious aspect to the clothing:
The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women….I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.
It’s true that the burqa can be seen as a symbol of female oppression insofar as Islam can be seen as oppressive of women. Most Islamic theocracies are not very generous when it comes to granting women equal rights to men (then again, most theocracies are not very generous when it comes to granting rights in general). But it’s also true that plenty of Muslim women—including many Muslim women who live in the Western world—simply see the burqa only as an expression of their faith and don’t feel subjugated at all, thank you very much.
So Sarkozy is being disingenuous when he says that the burqa is a question of freedom and women’s dignity. It is that—but it’s not only that. The problem is that, deep down, Sarkozy—and much of the French populous—sees the burqa not as a symbol of religion nor as a symbol of female subjugation, but as a latent third option: a symbol of immigration.
In fact, France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe, ranging about five million. Signs that integration is failing, leading to an increasingly insular, radical—and sometimes violent—immigrant community, has stoked fear among the French. (And may also explain the rise of the far-right nationalist Front National party that recently won three seats in the European Parliament). It also doesn’t help the situation that France has a particularly stagnant economy and too few jobs to go around.
So really, Sarkosy and others’ problem with the burqa is that it signifies to them a failure of this troubled immigrant population to integrate. Consider that a much better way to combat the oppression of women—Sarkosy’s ostensible goal—would be to open more shelters for battered wives, or to ramp up prosecution of those who commit rape. Combating the woes of women’s fashion might conceivably be included somewhere on an actionable list—but it’s absurd to count it as the top priority, and should regardless not be a concern of the government.
If Sarkosy is serious about doing something to aid Muslim women—and the French populous in general—he should focus primarily on liberalizing the economy and creating new jobs, which will do more to bring Muslim women into the Western fold than banning an article of clothing ever could. Going after the burqa—a vital aspect of many Muslim women’s faith—will only be counter-productive by serving to further radicalize a population that probably feels vilified enough. It would be a shame for all involved if French Muslim women came to see the burqa as another sign of oppression—not by religion but by their government.