France's Proposed Burqa Ban: Why Americans Might Want to Consider It Too


Bonnie Erbé

Ban the burqa?

The French Parliament just completed six months of hearings promoted by a member of Parliament on the so-called burqa controversy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made no secret of his dislike for the Afghan-style garb and full-face veils, calling them "a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement."

At first, Sarkozy wanted burqas banned in all instances, but he has now stepped back to a more moderate position, seeking to have Parliament pass a law banning the full-body veil in public places and on public transportation. France, we should all remember, passed a law in 2004 banning young girls from wearing headscarves in public schools.

The burqa discussion has roiled this nation of 64 million -- some one-tenth of whom are Muslims. Sarkozy has declared that in a country where women enjoy equal rights, he does not want to see those rights debased. Only several thousand French women wear the garment, most coming from communities made up of Muslims who emigrated from former French protectorates.

But the issue of the burqa, what it symbolizes and how it resonates with immigration policies here in the U.S., raises some serious questions. Is it a sign of repression, even when the wearers aver they have "chosen" to don it? What is the impact of a woman's wearing of a burqa or a headscarf on other women in that society? These are deeply personal questions to which every woman (and man) will have a very different answer.

I have been to the Middle East more than a dozen times and have studied this issue both here and abroad. I must say that when visiting countries such as Egypt and Morocco, where native women cover all but their faces, I am not likely to go out in public in shorts and a T-shirt, as I do here at home. Some culturally tone deaf Western tourists do dress as if they're touring Disneyland, but most have the presence of mind to cover up somewhat, out of respect for another country's culture, beliefs and tradition.

I often wish Muslim immigrant women would repay the courtesy here in the U.S. Whenever I see a woman in full body garment or head scarf -- and there are plenty of them in my community, where there are many immigrants -- I take it as an affront.

I say this knowing it is highly controversial to do so, but it feels to me as if they are holding American women back. The women in my neighborhood do not cover their faces, but many go outside -- even in the stifling Washington, D.C., summers -- in full-body coverings. I wish they would adopt a "When in Rome . . ." approach and make full use of the freedoms granted to women in this great nation.

In fact, I wish the U.S. would pre-screen for women who want to take full advantage of the freedoms they gain by moving from a society that represses women to one that does not. Immigration is a privilege and not a right.

I remember speaking to a group of Westernized Iranian women years ago, not long after the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. One told me, "We loved our shah and do not want to see women pushed back into ancient times and dress codes under the Ayatollah."

Much more recently, an Iranian feminist told me that Iranian émigrés wearing full-body garb in this country are making an anti-Western statement by so doing. Indeed, the French inquiry into the burqa controversy supports that view, as reported by the Washington Post:
"Although veiled women are estimated to number no more than several thousand in this country of 64 million, [French Parliament Member Andre] Gerin said, behind them are what he called 'gurus' who are trying to impose Islamic law on French society.

"For instance, Gerin said, doctors at the Mother and Child Hospital in Lyon told him during a visit that they are threatened several times a week by angry Muslim men who refuse to allow their pregnant wives or daughters to be treated by male doctors, even for emergency births when nobody else is available. 'The scope of the problem is a lot broader than I thought,' he said at a news conference summing up his findings. 'It is insidious.' "
I have interviewed American Muslims, both immigrants and native-born converts, who say they choose to wear headscarves or full-body coverings. Some of them are highly educated and could easily have chosen not to do so. But, to me, many of them seemed to have ulterior motives -- motives based on acceptance into a community or by a man who provides emotional or financial support. A true choice? Perhaps, but a heavily freighted one as well.

There are many factors complicating my argument to follow France's lead: France has a historical and more knotty relationship with residents of its former colonies than we do with our Islamic émigrés. I've been asked why I am so opposed to Islamic coverings, but tolerate Catholic nuns' habits. That is fodder for subsequent columns. For now, I advise Americans to study the results of the French inquiry and launch a public debate about which lessons learned pertain to our culture.