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