A Western head of state says burqas oppress women, and he supports a ban on them in his country. The words from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, giving the first presidential address to Parliament since Napoleon's nephew delivered one in 1848, are simply reality as seen through Western eyes. But the moment feels cathartic.
Why? Sarkozy explicitly rejected the idea that a burqa is some kind of benign religious custom, and gave a vivid sense of its symbolic and real impact on women. Here are two translations of what he said.
From the Associated Press:
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen
, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said to extended applause at the Chateau of Versailles, southwest of Paris. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement -- I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
From the New York Times
"The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue
, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity," Mr. Sarkozy said. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women."
says presidents have been barred from entering Parliament since 1875 as a means to protect legislators' independence. Reforms last summer paved the way for Sarkozy's address. While he discussed the economy, the newspaper said, his most pointed remarks were about burqas.
Lest anyone forget, burqas completely encase women in dark fabric, with a slit of a screen for their eyes. They were a hallmark of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and religious police still require women in parts of some countries to wear them. In France, the AP says, despite a 2004 law that bans burqas in schools, there is a small but growing trend toward wearing them.
Phyllis Chesler at the conservative PajamasMedia website argues that Sarkozy is brave whereas President Obama, in his remarks in Cairo, hung back and temporized
. That's not entirely fair. Obama did not say the U.S. government went to court to preserve the right of Muslim women in America women to wear burqas; he was talking about hijab, modest head scarves and dress that does not involve covering the face. Still, it's great to hear a flat-out denunciation of a Dark Ages garment and the motivations of men who insist that it be worn.