Sarkozy’s cru­sade against burka all about stir­ring hos­til­ity to gain votes

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT - E wynne Dyer

Eight months ago ( and 10 months be­fore re­gional elec­tions were due to be held all over the coun­try), French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy raised a vi­tal is­sue be­fore his par­lia­ment. It was not the fi­nan­cial melt­down that was un­der­min­ing the world’s economies, or the threat of cli­mate change, or even the rash of bike thefts in Paris. He wanted to ban the burka.

“ The prob­lem of the burka is not a re­li­gious prob­lem,” he told French leg­is­la­tors in June of last year. “ This is an is­sue of a woman’s free­dom and dig­nity. This is not a re­li­gious sym­bol. It is a sign of sub­servience.... I want to say solemnly, the burka is not wel­come in France.”

The next day par­lia­ment cre­ated a 32-mem­ber cross-party com­mit­tee to in­ves­ti­gate whether wear­ing the burka vi­o­lates the prin­ci­ples of the French con­sti­tu­tion.

The burka is a shroud-like, full­body cov­er­ing worn in pub­lic by some Mus­lim women who take (or whose husbands or fathers take) an ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive view on the need for fe­male “mod­esty.” The wearer sees the world only through a nar­row grill of cot­ton threads sewn into the front of the gar­ment, or, in the case of the vari­ant called the niqab, through an open slit that re­veals only the eyes.

The par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee dis­cussed the is­sue of the burka for six months and de­liv­ered its con­clu­sions a cou­ple of weeks ago. It did not pro­pose to ban the burka en­tirely but rec­om­mended that women wear­ing burkas be for­bid­den to en­ter schools, hos­pi­tals and gov­ern­ment offices or to use pub­lic trans­porta­tion. Thus, a bus driver, for ex­am­ple, could refuse to let a burka-clad woman board the bus to col­lect her chil- dren from school.

What use­ful pur­pose could such a law serve? Some of the women wear­ing burkas pre­sum­ably do so of their own free will, while oth­ers are forced to do so by their male rel­a­tives. An an­tiburka law would vi­o­late the rights of the first group and in­crease the like­li­hood that the sec­ond group will be en­tirely con­fined to their homes.

The French par­lia­ment can­not move fast enough to pass such a law be­fore the re­gional elec­tions are held in March but the com­mit­tee’s re­port en­sures that an ugly de­bate about im­mi­grants will be rag­ing dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. It is part of the same dis­turb­ing trend in Europe that saw Swiss vot­ers ban minarets in a ref­er­en­dum last year, and Dutch leg­is­la­tors vote in 2005 in favour of ban­ning the burka. (The Dutch gov­ern­ment lost an elec­tion be­fore a law was passed.)

It is es­ti­mated that be­tween three mil­lion and six mil­lion ( five to 10 per cent) of France’s 64 mil­lion peo­ple are Mus­lims. It is also es­ti­mated that only 1,900 women in France wear burkas, mostly in the im­mi­grant sub­urbs around Paris and other big French cities. That is less than one Mus­lim woman in a thou­sand.

This is not re­ally about burkas (which al­most half of the French pop­u­la­tion say that they never see). It is about mo­bi­liz­ing right wing vot­ers, and to en­er­gize them even more Sarkozy de­clared a “great de­bate” on French iden­tity last Novem­ber. His mo­tives are cyn­i­cal and his meth­ods are ma­nip­u­la­tive, but since he has raised the is­sue, what about it? Is wear­ing a burka com­pat­i­ble with be­ing the ci­ti­zen of a mod­ern democ­racy?

If you have not been ac­cus­tomed to it since child­hood, there is un­ques­tion­ably some­thing dis­turb­ing about en­coun­ter­ing masked peo­ple ( for that is what the burka and niqab pro­duce) in a pub­lic space. The wear­ers’ gen­der and your own com­mon sense will tell you that they are not danger­ous peo­ple but they are and will re­main apart, al­most alien, re­ject- ing the com­mon so­ci­ety that every­one else shares.

That is not ideal but it must be tol­er­ated in so­ci­eties that ac­cept and em­brace ev­ery other kind of di­ver­sity. Fadela Amara, a Mus­lim-born women’s rights cam­paigner and a min­is­ter in Sarkozy’s gov­ern­ment, has called the burka “a kind of tomb for women,” but she has no right to im­pose her view on those who freely choose to wear it.

That does not take ac­count of the other women ( prob­a­bly a ma­jor­ity) who wear it only in obe­di­ence to their men, but this is not a mat­ter on which leg­is­la­tion can be ef­fec­tive. Ban the burka, and those women will sim­ply be­come full-time pris­on­ers in their own houses.

Be­sides, Sarkozy is not re­ally try­ing to free those women. He is just try­ing to win the re­gional elec­tions by stir­ring up an­tiMus­lim feel­ing.

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