Nicky Sarkozy wants to protect your "dignity"

Posted at 11:50 AM Apr 21, 2010

By Andrea Grimes

France is deeply concerned about Muslim women's ability to freely express themselves, so the country is set to completely ban Muslim women from wearing a particular item of clothing. President Nicolas Sarkozy, the great protector of stupid, oppressed women who don't know better everywhere, is hoping to ban veiling in his country so that the ladies can be proper ladies, the way ladies are supposed to be proper.

Because everybody knows the best way to ensure that women are happy and free is for their mostly-male government to them what they can and cannot wear. Per the New York Times:

Mr. Sarkozy wants a bill that goes farther than initial proposals, including a ban on wearing the full veil -- the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, and the burqa, which is almost unknown in France -- from streets, markets and shops, according to his spokesman, Luc Chatel. The full veil "hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society," Mr. Chatel quoted Mr. Sarkozy as telling the Cabinet.

Oh, Nicky! Thanks so much for caring about the "dignity of women," and lending your expertise to the practice of ladyness and how ladyness should properly be experienced. I presume Sarkozy's credentials in this area include being married to a model and ... being French?

The knee-jerk reaction to veiling by most Westerners--Western feminists included--is to see the practice of veiling as inherently oppressive. After all, women are forced to cover their bodies in shame, are they not? Well, no, they're not. Go buy Politics Of The Veil. Or, spend 20 minutes reading a PDF copy of Elizabeth Fernea's excellent and nuanced anthropological study, Behind The Veil.

It's not as simple as taking the veil away from Muslim women and telling them to go celebrate their newfound freedom from patriarchy. Many Muslim women choose to veil. In a world where many of women's gendered choices are subject to scrutiny (to shave or not to shave?), singling out veiling as some kind of greater sin is ignorant and probably a little bit racist (what with France not banning, say, other forms of modest dress in Christian circles). Something tells me these high-fashion veils are A-OK by Sarkozy's standards, but those nasty burqas are off limits because they're patriarchal, while women dressing beautifully, wearing makeup and aspiring to be thin to attract men is ... not? At the very least, this is a classic example of "progressive" Westerners telling the "uncivilized" and "ignorant" brown folks what to do, because somehow they know better.

Anyway, if veiling is, in fact, oppressive and misogynistic--and let me reiterate again that I do not believe it is, in all cases--preventing women from wearing it in no way addresses the actual problem of oppression and misogyny. It's a difficult issue because we're talking about religious beliefs instead of purely social ones, which makes approaches like educating people about sexism and demanding equal rights and pay nigh impossible. How do you convince someone their religious beliefs are oppressive to women--and moreover, how do you convince someone to care if they are? If that's what God says, after all, then that's the way it should be. Regardless, banning women from wearing a veil doesn't do anything to improve the lived experience of women who may be oppressed by it. It just makes their personal lives more difficult and probably would inspire them to retreat from the public sphere.


Ruth said:

The veil was discouraged in Iran too. In fact, some people think it made moderate Muslims who wanted to have the right or thought the veil should be worn ally themselves with the ultra-fundamentalist Muslims.

I don't like any decree about what people can/can't gets into a bad area. Plus, I'm a very non-conservative Mennonite but I respect the decisions of the more traditional women to wear the veil if they want. It's just a cap anymore but it used to be something similar and it feels connected.

BorgQueen said:

Choosing to wear a veil (or any other type of clothing)= legal and perfectly fine in a free country.

Forcing someone to wear a veil (or any other type of clothing)= should be made illegal

Can I be President of France now? I can be paid in cheese...

Peter (Seattle) said:

The French are, for the most part, much more committed to secular society and to social equality, opportunity, participation, and integration than Americans, and they are more willing to sacrifice minor personal religious freedoms to that end. Neither the niqab nor the burqa -- nor the simple headscarf for that matter -- is mandated by Islam. Further, there is no practical way to ensure that a given woman is not being pressured or forced by her family or "male guardians" to wear one. A public ban is an effective means of preserving the secular nature of French society, preventing isolation and discrimination, increasing social integration and equality, and limiting the reach of domineering families from traditional cultures. To many French, if a small number of women are denied the right to voluntarily wear a niqab or burqa in public, that is a worthwhile sacrifice in view of the greater good.

The French conceptions of religious freedom and separation of Church and public life are different from ours. Their government and public institutions are more rigorously secular and they don't accommodate religious interests nearly as much as we do. (For example, they don't allow parents to kill their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.) Moreover, their Muslim community is proportionally at least three times larger than ours, more alienated, and more susceptible to radical fundamentalist influence. Concerns about its integration into French society are correspondingly more pressing. Understanding this should help put Sarkozy's proposed ban in a more sympathetic light -- the fact that he is probably pushing it to capture xenophobic right-wing voters in future elections notwithstanding.

Regardless of where you come down on the issue, there is a good chance the ban will be limited or struck down when it reaches the French Constitutional Council or the European Court of Human Rights. Me, I find clothing mandates in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan more offensive to women's rights than bans in France (or Belgium or Quebec...).

Beth said:

I lived in France for awhile, and while I appreciate your awe and wonder of their "secularization," I scoff at your claim that they are more committed to integration. I wonder how you are not connecting the "alienated" Muslim population in France directly to legislative attempts to mandate their dress and religious expression (and only their dress, I don't see the traditional shawls worn by Jewish women mentioned in these bills). Also, America has produced significantly more domestic terrorists and radical fundamentalist influence than has been born of this "large, alienated" mass of Muslims. In much of Europe, this progressive society you are just so enamored with, there is extreme amounts of Islmaphobia that result in parliamentary action (banning minarets, banning veils, calls to prayer) which is nothing more than racism. Racism for the sake of "protecting women" is nothing feminists should ever support. And any group of people who are consistently targeted with demeaning laws and policies have every right to make public displays of solidarity and resistance, even if it is an act as simple as what they chose to wear.

dandellion said:

Instead of one way of oppression sarkozy proposes another. Instead of "you must" he says "you must not". Is that a way to fight for one's freedom? No it isn't.

His only problem with those subservient women is that it's not him they are subservient to. It's not him who tell them what they have to wear.

Parker. said:

Sarkozy has gone too far with this ban. As much as I do love the French tradition of Laicite, which is what Peter is referring to (intense secularism--preventing religious wear in governmental establishments such as schools court, etc in order to prevent religious discrimination), this is a misrepresentation of it. The French and Muslims do not get along historically or in the modern world, and as much as I hate to admit it, they're dead wrong on this one. The tradition comes from respect for eachothers and protection of all religious groups--this law does neither.

Unknown said:

Firstly - Zut Alors. How dare these supposedly French Muslim women attempt not to be judged entirely upon their external appearance when going about in public. This is most definitely not in the tradition of carefully stage-managed womanhood that the nation of France has come to pride itself upon...
(Sorry. Am English, bitching about the French is what we do. As well as apologising. And spelling words like "apologising" with an "s"...sorry...rambling now...onwards)

Anyway, lets see...Respecting religious belief can honestly take a hike here - if going on Hajj, pilgrimage to the holiest of holies, Allah only really requires a girl to respectfully cover her hair and worship at the back so's not to upset any poor, incorrigible men with her backside then the rest is simply various personal and cultural interpretations of a beautifully written yet poetically vague holy book and the state really can justifiably have a go here.
I suspect if you've managed to translate the bit in the Quo ran about not showing off your beautiful self "except that which is apparent thereof" into covering the entire mad powder keg with a groundsheet for the sake of public modesty then you're already a bit of an extremist. Unless of course you've not made that choice for yourself, then we're treading the realms of human trafficking and I'm pretty sure nobody's trying to okay that one on religious grounds.
So ultimately this ban is about showing these particular religious extremists that their interpretations aren't any more welcome in France (a pro-choice country with a large Catholic population that's managed to convict the Scientolgists for fraud..etc) than anyone else's have been so far, even if Sarkozy is a xenophobe courting little tit.

Peter (Seattle) said:

Hi, Beth ---

While I'm not in *awe* of French secularism, as a secular humanist I prefer it to American notions of separation of Church and State. I think secular governments and societies are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Religious people of just about any stripe will probably prefer the United States, which bends over backwards to accommodate their beliefs and practices and generously forces all taxpayers to subsidize them by making religious contributions tax-deductible.

Don't scoff. Generally speaking, the French *are* more committed to integration -- in theory, at least. They want immigrants to become *French*. They want them to adopt *French* republican values. They want them to live a *French* way of life. They don't want them to set up their own cultural enclaves within France. (To put it another way, the French are much less tolerant of cultural differences than we are. In the United States, no one cares how immigrants live or how well they integrate as long as they are here legally, make money or work for cheap, buy stuff, pay taxes, and don't commit crimes. To put it yet another way, France is a country; the United States is a market.) In practice, however, the French haven't done *nearly* enough to integrate Arabs and Muslims into their society. Point partially conceded ... but still not scoff-worthy.

How can I not tie French Muslims' alienation directly to dress codes? Well, because France's ugly history of mistreating them is a much bigger and more likely cause. You've got France's colonial occupation of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. You've got the mass importation throughout the 60s and 70s of cheap North African labor -- men who were not allowed to bring their wives or families with them -- on one-year "perma-temp" visas renewable at the employer's and government's discretion, allowing for 10, 15, or 20 years of lonely, isolated, insecure status. You've got de facto segregated public housing ghettos. You've got weak, and weakly enforced, anti-discrimination laws for the private sector. You've got selective law enforcement. In short, a long, ugly history, very roughly comparable to our own history of slavery and Jim Crow. The thing is, when you immigrate to a new country with its own culture, you don't get to import your own dress codes with you. French women who immigrate to the United States don't get to sunbathe topless on (most) American beaches. Women from fundamentalist Muslim cultures who immigrate to France don't necessarily get to go around in public in niqabs or burqas. Point not conceded.

I don't think I gave you enough grounds to infer that I am enamored with progressive European societies. Point not conceded.

I didn't say anything about the Swiss ban on minarets. Switzerland is weird; it's more democratic, more confederate, and less principled than either the US or France. Some cantons are officially Roman Catholic. Some cantons have strict separation of Church and State. Some cantons support religious institutions with publicly levied funds. The Swiss can enact federal laws and constitutional amendments by referendum without judicial review. At any rate, make-weight point not conceded. Switzerland is not France.

Before you accuse the proposed French niqab/burqa ban of being thinly veiled racism, take a look at Turkey, a Muslim country that has similar bans -- bans that have been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. Is Turkey being racist? Or is it just committed to secularism? France is something like 90% Catholic, and their laws and public attitudes are almost as "hostile" to Catholicism as to Islam. So is the proposed French face-veil ban racist? Or is France just committed to secularism? Point not conceded.

Not to flog a dead horse, but I think Sarkozy's primary motivation in pushing this ban (despite legal cautions from the French Council of State) is to woo xenophobic voters away from the far-right National Front party in upcoming elections. That doesn't mean the ban is without merit. Protecting women from forced segregation and isolation is a legitimate social goal. I mean, what's next? Are you going to start supporting women's rights to freely opt for clitoridectomies and infibulation? Because a man (or patriarchal society or any government) shouldn't be able to deny them these rights? Seriously, I think you picked the wrong battle.

BethB said:

Ah, now I see where the confusion is... it's our differing definitions of "integration." I think the US, an extremely racist and xenophobic country, at least pays some lip service to celebrating all the different groups, cultures and religions that make up our society. I think these efforts, adapting a culture to accurately reflect who makes up that culture instead of remaining fixed in a definition of country that is no longer representative (aka white-washing), _that_ is integration. Forcing people to act like some archaic notion of a country that not even the youth would recognize and endorse is not integration (speaking of which, most French women, especially those under 40, do not sun bathe naked. Recent article on this in Le Monde for reference. Find a new comparison). There were many southerns in the US who supported Jim Crow, because it allowed "access" to African Americans, while preserving an "American way of Life"... this is directly equivalent to me of banning Muslim headwear.
I am familiar with the history of colonization between Northern African countries (among others) and France, and the resulting sentiment which has manifested itself in these laws. You're right, Muslims have been discriminated against and ghettoized, just spend some times in the HLMs and this is clear, and if they really wanted to promote "secularization" they would first address their own discriminatory practices.
In addition, Turkey has vastly relaxed its bans and resistance to veil-wearing, and in fact many officials in Turkey have wives, family members or they themselves wear the veil in public.
And I find it difficult to understand, from a political standpoint, why Sarkozy would be passing laws to reach out to voters from the National Front when his party was largely swept by the left and the Socialists in the regional elections this year... the right isn't the threat to him now.
Bottom line, I don't need you to concede your points to me, you feel it should be someone's right to dictate what women should wear OTHER than the women themselves (and many Muslim in Europe wear veils and the niqab of their own chosing, not because male family members force them to. Again, identifying with their religious group in a society that does not afford them equal treatment and respect is a form of solidarity and resistance), so I'm not too interested in winning debates with you. But thanks for the patronizing insight!
PS- Congrats on being a secular humanist... I'm one too! Small world, I guess. And as a member of a group that gets discriminated against based on their belief system and is stereotyped incorrectly to our detriment, I find implied Islamophobia even more stomach-turning. Let's not forget what happened last time France (and Europe at large) thought that a certain religious group should no longer have the right to freedom of religious expression.

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