President Sarkozy’s recent declarations against the burqa have fallen out of the news headlines but his words are still ringing loudly within and outside Western Muslim communities. Opinion pieces and letters continue to flood international and local papers, tugging back and forth. While such debates may be painful and trivial to read and listen to by many, they must be welcomed as they bring into light a far greater issue than any all-encompassing piece of fabric. Most importantly, however, there is a dire necessity for a more intellectually sound discussion outside the common “the mini-skirt versus the veil” parable. Albeit legitimate, this comparative argument is reductionist, focusing on a superficial detail. For one thing, it does not take into account that the question of the veil in France is beyond basic issues of the place of religion in a secular state. This is the same problem found within the monologues expressing support for the ban; monologues arguing for the universal liberation of universally oppressed Muslim women. If we are to engage in this discussion, as citizens of a multicultural secular democratic state, education on the matter becomes an obligation upon each and every one us. We must engage and we must learn to observe outside the tunnel. After all, our own society faces watered-down versions of the questions being whispered and roared amongst the French state and its populace.
In 2005, France declared that any and all “conspicuous” religious symbols would be banned from public schools. While Christian crosses and Jewish kippas also fell under the ban’s radar, its most obvious target was the hijab, a head-covering worn by many Muslim women around the world. The French state repeatedly assured the ban’s critics that the action was necessary for sustaining the country’s foundational secularism and was not meant to isolate or harass a large demographic within its citizenry. But as the home to the largest European Muslim population, it was hard for observing critics to bat their eyes in any other direction.
A thorough survey and critique of the 2005 ban was provided by Professor Joan Wallach Scott’s 2007 book Politics of the Veil. Scott explores French notions of secularism, sexuality, individualism and history, in particular putting an emphasis on the link between France’s role as a former colonial power and its current relationship with its minority populations. This role is only one part of a far more complex and multi-layered situation in which France currently finds itself. The French Revolution created a republic with ideals of equality, individualism and secularism which reflected what it meant to be French in the post-revolution period. The issue of colonial history, however, is one which deserves more attention than it has received, especially in the discussion regarding the adornment of the veil – be it in the form of the hijab or the burqa – in the French public.
Scott argues that the colonialist experience of the French in North Africa saw the veil as a symbol of both cultural and violent resistance. Algeria stood at the forefront of France’s efforts: ending France’s reach with the 1960s revolution. The adornment of the veil made the Algerian woman’s grasp to her ‘barbaric and backwards’ culture all the more apparent; she had to be unveiled for assimilation to be successful. This was, after all, in line with the imperialist European strategy of conquering a society through conquering its women first. During the revolution, however, the full veil took on a violent façade. Many men, hidden within the garment, attempted to assassinate French officials roaming the Algerian streets. This tactic proved to be successful. The veil became the physical manifestation of an entire people’s resistance to being conquered. As Franz Fanon discusses in his book The Wretched of the Earth, in the process of decolonization both the colonized and the colonizers are affected. They are no longer the same bodies of people which existed before colonization; they emerge from decolonization as partially, sometimes fully, reborn. France’s colonial experience has, thus, unsurprisingly left a legacy not only within the lands it attempted to conquer but also within the minds of the French state and populace.
The fascination with the unveiling of the woman of the so-called Near East is perhaps most perfectly depicted within the Orientalist artwork of the 18th and 19th centuries. These works portrayed themes and images which created a long-lasting impression. Many painters were unable to travel to the conquered regions, having to rely on secondhand accounts. Yet even those who were able to travel were often unable to gain access to women as models. Thus their illustrations were driven by both circumstance and self-fulfilling fantasy.
The artists collectively created a singular portrait of the Near Eastern woman as both a virgin awaiting her salvation and a seductress seeking her next willing victim. She would often be either confined within the cages of a harem, forced to perform for her bearded and overweight master or she would lounging naked in a large bath, being gently scrubbed by a black female slave. Thus, over-eroticization of the Near Eastern woman was not isolated to the oft-misunderstood harem; it was extended to all facets of her life, from the most intimate to the most familial and mundane. Additionally, her clothing deserves special observance. When clothed, her garments were often depicted as sheer and tantalizing, covering just barely enough.
The Near Eastern man was also not safe from an overly exoticized depiction; he was a man unable to treat his women in their deserving manner. He was a man who kept a strong hand on his women, who were merely his sexual properties. It was the thus the duty of the European man to save the poor women and unveil her from the precincts of the harem and home. This fantasy has persisted till this day: Muslim and Arab women are confined to a veil forced upon them by their vicious men thereby making it the duty of the Western man to come and liberate the oppressed from their chains. And just like the feminist missions of the past, the men of today come to liberate the women of ‘backwards and barbaric cultures’ forgetting the strong patriarchal structures which still exist and exploit their own societies.
France now stands at a social and political turning point. It has been unwilling to see and accept that in its post-colonial condition it is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Instead, it continues to push its homogeneous identity upon a heterogeneous populace in an effort to secure its power as a strong state. France’s ideological secularism is not the problem. Its inability to adapt to its reality is. The hijab and the burqa are not the problem. Their symbolic throwback to history is, as are the rigid structures and understandings of equality, sexuality and individualism.
Banning an article of clothing, which is both chosen and unfortunately sometimes also forced, does not provide any solution to the attack France sees coming from the nearby horizon. Such a ban only acts as its own resistance to the reality of its changing face. French Muslims, who have been living within the country for generations, consider themselves French above all else. Yet they are consistently told – socially, politically and economically – otherwise. The 2005 riots, by angry young men of immigrant origins is testament to the alienation and discrimination felt by those who have lived in France for two or three generations. These young men are no longer considered natives of the lands from which their forefathers came and at the same time are not considered to be “actually” French by those who are French “enough.”
By targeting how a small number of French women choose to assert and represent their sexuality, France is missing the real sources of the problem as well as implying that its foundation is perhaps far less stable than what it would like the world and its own citizenry to think. It is now time for France not to shed the various components of its identity, but rather to approach those very pieces with a broader outlook. Its minority population has been willing to adapt for decades, but can France accept minimal equity as a basis for greater equality as we have done so here in North America?
Mr. Sarkozy, your efforts may be sincere; you are, after all, only trying to protect the criteria for what makes one“French” enough. Remember, however, that in your attempt to free woman from her draping chains, you restrict her sexuality, her own sense of her individualism and her being to the confines of your harem by dictating the dance she must do and the garments she must wear to please you.