France’s conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly stated that he backs a coalition of French legislators expressing “concerns” over the increase in burqa wearing among Muslim women in France:
"The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity.
"The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.
"We cannot accept that some women in our country are prisoners behind a grille, cut off from social life, deprived of their identity."
Nobody has said anything (yet) about “banning” burqas, though it is worth remembering that, as of 2003, French law prohibits the wearing of overt religious symbols (including crucifixes, headscarves, and yarmulkes) in secular state institutions, including state-operated schools.
Sarkozy’s words “not welcome,” which grate in American ears, are part of the government’s century-old attempt to define and preserve an idea of French culture in a mobile and diverse society. As such, Sarkozy’s speech is consistent with the French concept of laïcité and an effort to preserve a level of peace and order in public institutions at a time when religion can be compared to gang membership in the minds of many, many of both secular and religious mindsets.
Laïcité is a uniquely French concept, only somewhat comparable to America’s separation of church and state—which, in case you haven’t noticed, are hardly ever actually separate in this country.
French secularism was a nineteenth-century innovation to separate education, traditionally a Catholic system (all the medieval universities, for instance, were arms of the Church), from the control of the clergy. More strictly, then, than in the United States, France has kept government out of religion and religion out of government—no oaths on the Bible, no “one nation under God,” no crèches at city hall, no politicians crowding the pulpits.
Further, laïcité is as much a concept of French culture as it is of French law. French secularism does not deny the value of faith and spirituality. It does, however, separate it from the public sphere, viewing religion as a distinctly “private” matter, not to be meddled with in public and not to be allowed to meddle in matters of importance to the common collective good of the French people, of whatever creeds or none.
Still, it is hard not to hear Sarkozy’s words in the context of the conservative European backlash against immigrants, especially Arab immigrants, since 2001 and the rise of the “demographic winter” conspiracy scenarios currently popping up around the continent—diluted in mainstream films like Children of Men and fortified in far right religionist to neo-Nazi propaganda blaming feminists, gays, and abortion clinics for the shrinking numbers of white Christian babies.
Sarkozy’s stated concern—women’s freedom and dignity—, though, is clearly not anti-feminist or strongly sectarian. The question remains whether the statement truly reflects his and the legislators’ intent—because we Americans may remember how neocons opportunistically embraced feminism (for a few days) to justify wars, not so very long ago.
French laïcité has been criticized as an attempt to homogenize French culture. And in the burqa controversy, Sarkozy’s stance could backfire, as fundamentalist Muslims might then refuse wives and daughters the liberty to go out in public at all, not to mention draw fire from Islamicists for whom there is no such thing as the secular.
Are burqas a sign of religious freedom or an emblem of the subjugation of women? In America, such matters are usually left alone—rightly or wrongly designated as matters of religious choice and therefore protected under the First Amendment. In exceptional cases, such as when parents refuse needed medical care for their child in the belief that medical science denies faith in God’s healing powers, sometimes the state intervenes—but, even then, usually to some controversy.
I, for one, applaud France’s efforts to define a society based on secular values, while protecting religion as a privacy issue. I think America could do more to assert, protect, and enforce a secular culture that still maintains individuals’ right to worship (or not) as they please. Such a culture is essential to a society that values both individual freedom and the common good of its citizens.
Despite well-choreographed propaganda, the word “secular” does not and never really has meant the same thing as “anti-religious.” Some American religionists are comfortable persecuting others, while claiming martyrs’ crowns for themselves. For example, in my state (North Carolina), the biggest impediment to the just-passed anti-bullying law was not original-intent Constitutionalists, with their technical legal concerns, but church groups claiming that the inclusion of “real and perceived sexual orientation” as a protected category was an assault on their fundamental values, which hold that some types of children deserve all the bullying they get.
I cannot claim a great deal of sensitivity towards religion these days (I was brought up a fundamentalist Baptist) or much knowledge at all of Muslim practices. But purely from an outsider’s point of view, the burqa does, yes, look to me like the subjugation of women—even though I do realize that many women gladly and voluntarily don these heavy, forbidding coverings … mass self-subjugation is no less an affront on the human spirit than external constraints, lest we forget that many slaves claimed to love their masters, prided themselves in their faithful servitude, and would never have dreamt of trying to escape.
Definitely, I would feel different if in some Middle Eastern countries women who refuse to cover their heads in public had not been beaten and stoned in recent years. Under other circumstances, in a different historical context, I would tolerate the burqa as one more alien and sexist quirk of fashion—of which haute couture has seen plenty just as alien and just as sexist. But women in Paris are not physically attacked for refusing to wear Chanel or Franck Sorbier.
We live in a multicultural world. We have to live and let live. If we do not, we will divide and destroy ourselves.
But tolerance does not mean toleration of the patent degradation of whole groups. If burqas were merely offensive to my scruples or tastes, I would have nothing to say about them here. If burqa wearing was clearly a matter of personal preference and choice, I would have nothing to say against it. If I could hear a reasonable, liberal, and (yes) secular defense of the burqa, I could still change my mind about it.
But, in my admitted ignorance of the custom, the burqa looks degrading, and degradation of the human spirit is un-democratic. It is also un-French, if not yet (sadly) altogether un-American.