For France, Banning The Burqa Is Not The Answer

Woman wearing a burqa in Le Bourget, France. Image Credit: NPR/Getty Images

The issue of banning the burqa in France has generated so much heat over the past few months that one would assume the ban had already come into effect. Not so. Since French President Nicolas Sarkozy famously stated that, “the burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women…it will not be welcome on our territory,” a parliamentary panel has spent the past six months looking into why Muslim women wear the burqa, and what it means for France.

The 170 page report released today recommends the burqa be banned in all public spaces such as schools and hospitals, but does not make it illegal to wear on the streets or in “private buildings.” The panel had to be very careful with their stipulations because a full ban would have been unconstitutional.

Of course all this fuss over what a small minority of Muslim women in France are forced, or in some cases choose to wear is just a fraction of the much larger issue of Muslim integration in Europe. France has ample reason to be worried. The country has the largest Muslim population in Europe and Islam is the second largest religion in France. The French are known for taking pride in their secular culture.

The burqa is a garment which has become synonymous with women’s oppression in Islam, but we have got to be kidding ourselves if we think banning it has anything to do with the liberation of Muslim women. Sarkozy can talk as much as he wants about how much the burqa subjugates women, but his policies are not going to bring them emancipation.

I think Sarkozy’s real motives are to protect and preserve secular French culture. He wants to stop French identity from being Islamicized. In the process, Sarkozy is sending a very clear message to future Muslim immigrants: You want to move to France? Then be ready to let go of your ways, and take on ours. The burqa is a very visual and tangible symbol, easy to target.

Ironically, Islamic extremists also use the burqa as a tool to express their power, and make their presence felt. I am from Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populated Muslim countries, where radical Islam has slowly but surely been rising over the years. Growing up, you could count on your hands the number of women you saw veiled let alone burqa-clad.

Nowadays, the numbers are astounding. Billboards that use to advertise colorful saris show women covered in black, with only the sliver of their eyes exposed. When the extremists want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than covering up and restricting the visibility of women.

Sarkozy is doing something very similar, but in the opposite way by telling women they cannot wear the burqa. He can use the whole “it is a subjugation of women” language as much as he wants, but do we really think that Sarkozy is formulating policy to fight for the rights of Muslim women? If he was, he would factor in the issue of how many French Muslim women may not be allowed to go to schools, may be denied medical care, and have their mobility curbed in general because their (sexist) male guardians may not allow them out of the house without the burqa. We are seeing women’s bodies being exploited for political purposes.

The truth of the matter is France has to address its larger issue of Muslim integration instead of making a false case about Muslim women’s rights. Banning the burqa is not going to force Muslim women to wear tank tops and voila! suddenly become more French. In reality, it could have quite the opposite effect, marginalizing Muslim minorities and forcing them to become more extreme in their beliefs as they see them come under attack.

*This post of mine was also published on National Public Radio (NPR).
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