July 7 2010

What Not to Wear with Nicolas Sarkozy

Hadley Heath

French president Nicolas Sarkozy is back on his crusade to secularize France.  This time, the target is the burqa, a piece of clothing worn by women in some Islamic sects for the purpose of hiding a woman's body when out in public.

A law in 2004 banned the burqa from French schools, but the legislation currently under debate would forbid any face-covering Muslim veil in all public places in France.  Offenders would face a fine equal to about $185 and/or be enrolled in citizenship classes.

Sarkozy's reasoning?  He calls the burqa a symbol of "enslavement," and says it is contradictory to the French ideal of sexual equality.  "The burqa is not welcome in France.'' He added, ''We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity."

Sadly, it is true that sometimes the burqa is not the religious choice of women, but is forced upon them by their fathers,  their families, or even local warlords in countries like Afghanistan.   In some Islamic countries, a father or husband has whatever right he wants to control the dress of the women in his family.  This is oppressive, and denies women their right to self-expression through their choice of dress.

But for some Islamic women, wearing the burqa is not a deprivation of identity, but an expression of identity.  In 2004, several Islamic teachers in France left their jobs citing the ban on veils as a conflict to their religious practice.  A government that tells women what to wear (or what not to wear) is just as oppressive as a family or culture that does the same.  Of course parents help teach young children how to dress, but it is not the place of the family -and certainly not the place of the government -to force adult women to wear only clothes that they find "acceptable."

In a report about the ban debate, Amnesty International states, "Legal and social norms governing dress codes in a variety of countries and cultures have common underlying features. They often have a disproportionate impact on women, whose dress and appearance is subject to particular regulation because it is seen as the symbolic embodiment of the religious or cultural values of the community."

It seems that President Sarkozy wants the dress of French women to reflect the French cultural value of secularism and equality.  What's next?  Will Sarkozy ban necklaces with a cross symbol or the Star of David?  Will he ban all jewelry to eliminate distinction among social classes? 

The bright spot in the legislation is a fine of about $37,600 and possibly a year in prison for anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear a veil.  Both penalties are doubled if the victim is a minor.  But how will this be enforced, I wonder? 

And this detail in the legislation seems contradictory to me.  If the French government sees how oppressive it is to force a dress code on women (and they are willing to punish the offense harshly), how can it author and enforce a dress code of its own?  Trust me, Sarkozy, this does not look good on you.

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