Sarkozy: “Eliminate the Burqa”

***UPDATE 4/3/09: I’ve noticed this post floating around the web in a bunch of different places. That’s fine, I’m glad ya’ll like my thoughts. Please, just be sure to credit The Czech and put in a link when you do so. Thanks.***

What Dori said.

The New York Times and Le Monde both reported today on certain remarks from French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for the elimination of the burqa.

To wit:

“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.”

To enthusiastic applause, he said: “I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”


There are a thousand things wrong with this. Let me count them.

1. Mandating how women should dress is mandating how women should dress, whether it is a mandate to wear a burqa, or a mandate not to wear one. When a man tells a woman how to dress, it’s paternalism and subjugation one way or the other.

2. Plus, as Dori points out, a man telling a woman that too much of her body is covered, and that she needs to expose more of it to his view, is pretty weird. How much modesty is too much? How much exposed flesh is enough to satisfy Sarkozy?

3. A Christian man imposing rules of dress upon Muslim women does little to actually foster the kind of gender equality he claims to be advancing.

4. Sarkozy talks as though there is no “subjugation of women” among the non-Muslim denizens of France. As though France is a wonderland of gender equality. According to WikiGender: “Compared to other countries, France has always been rather late in adopting gender equality as a goal and designing policies to achieve it.” So why suddenly all this concern for a certain subset of French women, who just randomly happen to come from a community hated and feared by many in France?

5. What other items of clothing does Mr. Sarkozy disapprove of? Do they also happen to correspond to certain disfavored, marginalized communities?

6. Any attempt to “eliminate” burqas in France will only serve to further marginalize the women who wear them. Burqas, for some women, represent a compromise. Some individuals believe women are not supposed to be seen in public, or be looked at by men outside of the family. In this extreme view, women would be entirely confined to the house and removed from outside society unless they can put on a burqa and go out. Eliminating the burqa for these women would mean eliminating their access to the world. Better conditions for such women require a little more work than outlawing a piece of clothing.

7. Eliminating burqas in France would not mean that women’s oppression in Muslim communities would end. It would simply be a cosmetic change that would do nothing to actually work with communities and empower French Muslim women to achieve equality. It is a measure that ignores all nuance and avoids all honest work to actually tackle the heart of the problem.

8. All this “eliminate the burqa” talk fits just a little too snugly with the popular “Islam oppresses women” meme that Christian Westerners like to toss around, particularly when they are trying to frame a “War of Civilizations”.

9. Also, doesn’t this just come off as a cheap attempt at burnishing his Women’s Issues credentials while effectively only harassing a marginalized, already-persecuted minority? And doing little to nothing to further true societal equality for all women in France?

10. What real issues do French women, and French Muslim women in particular, actually face that Sarkozy is completely avoiding by diverting attention with this stunt? Why randomly target French Muslims now?

Ok, so that was only 10 things. Huh.


13 thoughts on “Sarkozy: “Eliminate the Burqa”

  1. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Link Farm

  2. Well Sarko is a cartoon. It is also true that this is just as much ordering women about, inappropriately (that is, when no violence, fraud or theft is occurring, which is the only time that people should be policed, in my opinion), as is forcing women to wear veils.

    As to “the popular ‘Islam oppresses women’ meme,” though, I think it bears saying that Sarko would not have felt that he had any excuse to pull this stunt, if not for the fact that so much violence has indeed been done to women for so-called “immodest dress.” Those videos of the Taliban beating women with sticks may have been used by westerners to tar the whole religion, and that is wrong. But those videos also reflected reality. Similarly, during the Algerian civil war during the 1990s, women were routinely shot to death for failing to wear a veil. These things occurred. The so-called “honor killings” that have occurred in Germany and elsewhere have also had as their excuse the women’s “immodest dress.” These acts of violence are also, plainly, the thing that people like Sarko, or the Turkish secularists who fear the encroachment of Islam into public life, are reacting to.

    No, “Islam” doesn’t oppress women. (Mohammed’s first wife was a businesswoman, so one wonders how Mohammed himself would react to people forcing women to stay in the home, in his name.) But yes, people oppress women plenty in the name of Islam, and this oppression, violence, and even murder occurs very often because of “immodest dress.”

    So yes, it is exactly as wrong to ban certain dress as to enforce it. Sarko is wrong. But it does bother me when people ignore such things as the Algerian women who were murdered for not veiling, because they’re so afraid of being culturally insensitive. Who said those women were less Muslim than the ones shooting them? And, for that matter, who said we have to shut up rather than saying it stinks? I hope it’s not used to start another nonsensical war, such as that against Iraq (I don’t class the Afghan war with that, because the Afghans hosted Osama bin Laden, who perpetrated 9/11, so this was self-defence). But people will misuse public opinion to justify violence. George Bush did so to invade Iraq; some Muslims do so to murder unveiled women. If the latter weren’t happening, then Sarko wouldn’t have anything to use, himself.

  3. Thanks Vidya! :)

    VJ: Thanks for the addition of your thoughts. My response is that I have not, nor has anyone else who’s opinion I’ve read, suggested that wearing a burqa is a great thing for women. Nowhere does any reasonable person argue that point, and I don’t understand why people keep arguing with myself and others as though we did.

    Arguing against a burqa ban does not mean that next I will go out and try to convince all women to wear burqas.

    Likewise, suggesting that Muslims be free from Muslim-specific oppression like burqa bans in France does not mean I support oppressive regimes in certain countries that use Islam as a cover to subjugate women. Why even bring up Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan or even Germany as though all Muslims are the same, no matter what country they reside in? My writing in this post is specifically about France. If you looked through my archives you would see that I have posted about abuse of women in the guise of “Islam”, yet you assume that I had no idea such abuse occurs and decided to educate me.

  4. Thanks IM. I intended in no way either to insult your intelligence by such an assumption. Neither did I assume you were callous in the matter of violence against Muslim women.

    In fact, I assumed no such thing, and in fact assumed that you had heard of at least some of the above. What I did assume, though, was that you hadn’t considered the fact that Sarkozy, though I disagree completely with his burqa ban, uses all these abuses elsewhere (though he may or may not say so explicitly) as his grounds for doing such things. I understand that your writing in this post was specifically about France; that’s exactly my point, that Sarkozy’s act didn’t come only from his focus on France. It came from a context that he draws from that includes all this other abuse.

    _I_ don’t believe all Muslims are the same; that’s why I mentioned that “‘Islam’ doesn’t oppress women,” only some people do so in the name of Islam; and that’s why I mentioned that who on earth said the people who are violently forced to dress “modestly” are less Muslim than those who are forcing them? To me, that means that I accord _more_ diversity to the Muslim world than those who ignore the more liberal quarters of Muslim society, and who say that we in the West must shush ourselves so as not to offend the stricter quarters’ sense of “agency” or sovereignty. This sort of “sensitivity” seems to indicate that the Taliban and their ilk are the only “real” Islam, and that they deserve the respect of sovereignty, while they deny the same sovereignty, and sometimes life, to more liberal Muslims.

    Further, when I mentioned those who ignore such abuses, or who insist on this “sensitivity,” I wasn’t speaking about you. I don’t know your posting history, and I’m sure what you say about it is true. But I just finished my graduate studies, and I can tell you certainly that I had many, many people scream at me about how outrageous it was to even mention German honor killings–this, when it wasn’t even I, but another student, who had broached the subject in her paper, which is what we were discussing–saying that all the news reports about honor killings in Germany were hysterical, overblown tabloid reports, even though they were from sources such as the BBC or Der Spiegel. Similarly, when I deplored the shootings of Algerians, I was shut down with: “well who are we to say how they should govern themselves?” So although, again, I take your word for it that you have never argued so, you can believe me, in academia, at least, this sort of manicheanism of the Left is alive and well, and is as concerned with shutting down criticism of the Taliban or their like as the Right is with using such criticism to tar all Muslims.

    If you want to argue that Sarkozy _should_ consider French Muslims discretely from the rest of the context of oppression over “proper Muslim dress” elsewhere in Europe, in former French colonies like Algeria, and in places such as Afghanistan where France has been fighting with us since the war began, I think that’s good advice to Sarkozy. It’s just that I think there’s no way that _Sarkozy_ came up with this burqa ban without having such context in mind. I think it’s this context that made him feel he has political support for it. Without that context of violence, he’d have had no excuse.

  5. Let me say too, though, that in the case of the politically correct lockstep that I felt was being enforced while at university, I can see that since this was not what you were arguing, it is understandable that you would object that “this isn’t the argument I was making, so who are you arguing with?” I accept that statement, if that’s what you meant to say.

    When you said: “My response is that I have not, nor has anyone else who’s opinion I’ve read, suggested that wearing a burqa is a great thing for women.”, I had of course never suggested that anyone had said any such thing (well, apart from the Taliban and their like, themselves). What people have done, however, in blog after blog (I can give examples if you like), is to claim that criticizing the Taliban, for example, for their beating of “immodestly dressed” women equalled “cultural imperialism,” and claimed that the Afghan War was nothing different from the 19th-century imperialists, a claim I still find ridiculous.

    If you say that “that’s not the argument we’re having here, and I’ve never heard anyone saying such things,” I’ll take you at your word, and you’re the one who sets the topic. But I’ve had this “cultural imperialist!” nonsense stuffed up me so often, in the context of who should approve Muslim dress or what the punishment for it should be, that to me, this is the context of debate from which we’re working, in the blogosphere, and in the classroom. For that reason, I felt that I should state my position clearly from the outset, in anticipation of the usual argument.

    I’m surprised you haven’t heard it, and if it’s taking the thread off-topic, I certainly apologize. But I think this “cultural imperialism” argument was applied so often, and so inappropriately, to make people uncertain about condemning Muslim-on-Muslim violence, especially in Europe, that it made Sarkozy feel comfortable in actually forcing his own ideas of culture on someone. You can’t separate the burqa ban from this wider context in Europe and elsewhere. Sarkozy isn’t.

  6. @VJ

    “Without that context of violence, he’d have had no excuse.”

    I agree with this statement.

    “I can see that since this was not what you were arguing, it is understandable that you would object that “this isn’t the argument I was making, so who are you arguing with?””

    Yes, I have this experience often, and strangely, it usually comes from people who have more education than I do. I can’t say I know why that would be. Maybe exposure to lots of people who make predictable and boring arguments? I don’t know.

    I have to say that I feel uncomfortable that the two of us who are not Muslim are discussing the extent to which Muslims are oppressed, and the extent to which Muslim countries/communities should be able to make decisions without “Western” interference. I am simply noting that I am not the authority on these matters and if any Muslim-identifying individuals would like to correct false or inappropriate statements that I may make regarding Islam, I welcome your input.

    Perhaps this is the anti-“cultural imperialism” view that you speak of, VJ. I haven’t heard the argument that Westerners should refrain from allying with peoples fighting oppression, so I am not clear what it entails. I personally believe that any person should be an ally to any other person who believes hirself to be experiencing oppression. (Not based on the ally’s opinion of what constitutes oppression.)

    There are Muslim women who have spoken out about the oppression of women that leads to wearing the burqa. Even so, I do not think that supporting the burqa ban would make me a good ally, since it doesn’t actually solve the problem of women’s oppression. Not because I’m trying to avoid being labeled a cultural imperialist.

    Here is a good link that uses humor and kind of explains my initial response to your comments.

  7. Thanks! Yes, that is a funny link. It concerns me, of course, because it’s really a primer for the right-wing neocon trolls around. But when I talk about subjects like these, I spend more time urging people to stop conflating Muslim extremism with all of the rest of the billion Muslims around.

    –I have to say that I feel uncomfortable that the two of us who are not Muslim are discussing the extent to which Muslims are oppressed, and the extent to which Muslim countries/communities should be able to make decisions without “Western” interference.

    Heh! And the funny thing is that when I mentioned, above, that people had advanced the “cultural imperialism” argument, there was one blog experience that I was thinking of. During that argument, someone somewhere had made a joke about how conservatives seem to want liberal or Democrat women to wear burqas so as not to betray the slightest hint of sexuality, because a Democratic operative had dressed “inappropriately” for a photo with Hillary Clinton or someone like that.

    There was a huge outcry, and at the end of it, I said: “wait a minute; here’s the person who made the joke, a white woman, getting flamed by African-American women as a racist, on behalf of Afghan Muslim women. Shouldn’t we hear from the Afghan women themselves?” Yet no Afghanis even got involved in the mammoth flame war that ensued. Finally, when I got into the argument to mention all of that (plus my argument quoting Mick Jagger’s statement, that “if you can’t take a joke, it’s too f00king bad”), a white English woman then took up the argument, calling me “racist!” over and over, and trying to insist that I admit I was a racist.

    That is, then, a white Englishwoman, lecturing a white American man, because I disagreed with African-American objections to joking about Afghani women’s oppression, and with the only people missing from the record being the Afghani women.

    So yes, I would certainly echo the call for any Muslims reading this to weigh in! Welcome, or should I say Ahlan wa Sahlan.

  8. Pingback: Talking About Islam « The Czech

  9. Pingback: France Continues Harassment of Muslim Women « The Czech

  10. Pingback: Ten Things Wrong with Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban « Smile Pretty & Watch Your Back

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