Banning the Burqa Isn’t the Answer

President Obama, addressing the Muslim world at Cairo, said that Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab as a covering for the head are no less equal than those who don’t. President Sarkozy of France, in a more recent speech, seemed to have no time for nuances.

“In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” he declared. “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”

Sarkozy went on to say that it wouldn’t be welcome “on the territory of the French Republic.”

Not surprisingly, his remarks have sparked intense debate among feminists, Muslim activists, liberals, and conservatives.

What does the donning of a burqa really mean, or signify? And would banning it achieve what Sarkozy has in mind—the emancipation of Muslim women?

The burqa originated and evolved in different contexts. Most people now associate it with Islam, but this garment was worn in the deserts of Arabia long before Islam arrived. It was meant to protect against the corrosive desert wind and sand. On the Indian subcontinent on the other hand, the burqa denoted a higher social standing. Over the last two centuries, women projected their status and class by shielding themselves behind it. It wasn’t meant as a means to make oneself invisible, but rather to distance oneself from the commoners. Over the decades, such practices were discarded by one class only to be taken up by the less well-to-do, perhaps as an effort to climb the social ladder when sheer wealth or education might not have been enough.

Present-day images of Afghan women clad in sky blue burqas hint strongly of nothing less than oppression and subjugation of women; especially to a Westerner. From there, it is a short step to the politicization of the issue, which is where Sarkozy has chosen to pitch camp. History suggests that his wish to surgically remove the burqa, while well-meaning, might backfire.

Secular governments of Turkey have banned the headscarf (a garment that in no way minimizes or erases the identity of a woman) on university campuses and in the public sector. It has had the opposite effect: an increasing number of Turkish women wear headscarves in defiance of a political system which they believe treads on religious turf.

Tunisia is another example, if a less publicized one. Three years ago, its government, fearing resurgent Islamism, began going after headscarf-wearing women with particular ferocity. Many women consequently began to cover their heads as a dissenting gesture.

In 2004, France banned conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. It was openly acknowledged as a move targeting the Muslim headscarf. Sarkozy’s comments on the burqa have obviously renewed the controversy.

President Sarkozy’s remarks, while unwelcome to many, may hint at a desire to tackle the problems besetting immigrant communities in France. In his words, “To achieve equality, we must know how to give more to those who have less.” If equality is indeed the top priority of his government, as he has often emphasized, then banning a “symbol of subservience” is not the answer.

If President Sarkozy wants to fight against the oppression of women, then perhaps a closer look at the socioeconomic condition of immigrants in France is in order. Simply banning the burqa will likely amount to no more than a quick fix, doing little to improve the status of women.

It might also simply collapse over its rigid and unwieldly logic, as has happened with government-backed iniatives elsewhere. The move, seen as arbitrary or worse, could alienate a large section of the five million-strong French Muslim community.

As President Obama pointed out, a physical assertion of one’s faith does not necessarily mean subservience or inferiority. Women, or minorities, suffer most when they are denied equal opportunity.

In Obama’s words, a woman denied an education is denied equality. Perhaps the focus (in relevant communities such as that of Muslims in France) should be on educating women and furthering their progress, rather than focusing on symbols and clothing that stand for different things in different contexts.

If Sarkozy believes fervently that the burqa signifies oppression (which is entirely credible in examples like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan), then an outright ban on the burqa might have a short-term benefit. At the least, it would set the stage for more meaningful reforms. In the case of the immigrant communities in France, he would serve the cause better by examining more fully the reasons for the marginalization of Muslim women; not simply focusing on an infrequent manifestation.

One hopes that the 32 lawmakers of the French National Assembly (charged with finding ways to restrict the use of the burqa) will, after due consideration, give wider-ranging recommendations for improving the conditions of the women underneath.