Thinly Veiled

After nearly six months of deliberation, a French parliamentary committee recently proposed a ban on Islamic face veils in government spaces, including hospitals, schools, public transportation and, theoretically, even the Champs-Élysées. This decision is only the most recent iteration of what Le Monde has dubbed a “national psychodrama” that has spanned decades of government wrangling, produced volumes of national press coverage, and spawned many governmental commissions. In this most recent iteration, French ministers point to the face veil as a sartorial “challenge to the republic” and, according to one, “a symbol of the repression of women.” With the help of the French, the veil—also known more accurately in various forms as the burqa, hijab or niqab—has conquered both the bra and the bikini as the world’s most contentious piece of women’s apparel. One colorful French minister even proclaimed it a fichu fichu (damned scarf). Intended to hide women from unnecessary attention, the burqa has, ironically, made them increasingly noticeable. As a central symbol of Muslim transpolitics, the burqa flutters at the center of debates on national identity, feminist ethics and postcolonial—even anticolonial—movements, inviting an opinion from seemingly everyone except the young burqa-donning women themselves.

While many other European countries have contemplated legislation concerning the burqa, none have passed restrictions comparable to the scale or scope of the French ban. The UK’s Times went so far as to say that it “would not be British to ban the burqa.”

The first few sentences of the French Constitution indicate that banning the burqa might not be un-French, though. Secularism makes an appearance in the very first line of the document, mentioned even before equality and democracy, and is reiterated in different ways three times just in the first paragraph. The term for French secularism, or la laïcité, has no clear English equivalent but, in a nutshell, translates to the absolute separation of state and religion and the strict neutrality of the government with respect to any and all religious beliefs. It can also imply that, because religion is considered to be a strictly private affair meant to be practiced behind closed doors, it must not enter the public sphere.

The legal frameworks of the United States and France, for example, both include the Establishment Clause, which delineates the separation of church and state, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects freedom of religion. When these two ideals clash, each county has historically tended to prefer one: the French value the former, while the Americans have traditionally stressed the latter. This uniquely French approach prevents many of the devout from practicing their religion in the public sphere. In contrast, religion is deeply imbedded in the functioning and legal framework of the state in most Islamic countries. As France’s second-largest—and fastest growing— religion, Islam and la laïcité were bound to clash.

In 2003, for example, President Jacques Chirac passed a law that banned all “conspicuous religious insignia” in French schools. While this action drew much criticism from activist groups, both Islamic and not, for curtailing expressive freedom, the Chirac government had a uniquely French stance on the issue: if la laïcité is to be taught to the next generation of French citizens, it must be done so through schooling in a secular environment, regardless of the number of young girls who must be expelled in order to create such a setting. Considering the ethnic composition of the communities affected, however, this state-sanctioned punishment is unlikely to produce the desired results. While France’s large Muslim community is primarily Maghrebian, a community with old colonial ties to France that has largely been assimilated into local culture, the less than 2,000 women estimated to wear the burqa, for the most part, do not belong to this community. They hail from a vast diaspora of recent immigrants originating from Turkey, Algeria, the Middle East, and even sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, most of the young women at the center of this debate are economically disadvantaged recent immigrants who live in cultural ghettos of sorts. The burqa is not only indicative of these immigrants’ beliefs, cultural ties and even force of habit, but also of their disenfranchisement and displacement, both geographically and socially. While this article of clothing pertains more to France’s current national identity crisis rather than its past colonial tensions, the political and historical nature of the burqa has reignited both issues.

The politicization of the burqa in modern times can be traced to Egypt in the late 19th century. This phenomenon has since caused repercussions throughout the Maghreb region and the wider Islamic and European world. In the 1920s, the Egyptian government called for unveiling as a precondition to modernizing the nation. This campaign was so successful that by the 1950s, the burqa had nearly vanished in Egypt’s cities and steadily waned in its countryside. Many key ideological interpretations of the veil began with the Egyptian campaign, interpretations that continue to saturate the veil in both the West and the Islamic world today.

In this imperial setting, according to Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed, the veil “became a symbol of inferiority, comprehensively, of the Islamic Other” and also “signaled a commitment to the project of modernity.” Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, and Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran banned the burqa in their respective countries in order to signal their commitment to modernization. To these national leaders, changing their citizens’ clothing was a way of changing not just their own mindsets, but also their national image in the eyes of the progressive, European countries they sought to emulate.

The Islamic response to these two colonial narratives championed the veil as a way of becoming modern while still retaining Muslim identity in a gendered recasting of different-but-equal. Muslim women could be progressive—but within bounds determined by men and attributed to divine law. Consider the Cairo Declaration of 1981 wherein men are charged with the welfare of the household while women are duty-bound to be good wives and mothers, based on Sharia law. By framing the range of women’s behavior within such narrow bounds, the Islamist rejoinder was no less imperialist with respect to women’s bodies than the colonial ideology.

Between these two starkly divided camps, the burqa had effectively become both a political metaphor of freedom and a symbol of cultural authenticity. While France makes strides to ban the burqa, Islamic nations from Afghanistan to Somalia impose the veil in order to make exactly the opposite point: to deny the “corrupting” influence of the West and affirm the centrality of religion.

What becomes amply clear from this discussion is that debates on the place and function of the burqa became less about the emancipation of women and more about defining and maintaining the discursive identity of the nation. The cultural wars have been declared, and the battleground is to be the bodies of women. As recently as 2004, the burqa was used as moral justification for the United States’ war on Afghanistan. As Ahmed writes, the burqa’s “fleeting appearance on television could function as explanation enough of what we were doing and why we were at war—packaged into one image were all those old notions of superior/inferior, saving the women, and moral rightness.”

In order to highlight the politicized nature of the burqa, compare it to the sari, another garment that, though not as controversial, has been subject to much colonial scrutiny. The Indian sari is a continuous fabric of cloth ranging from four to nine meters, draped in a variety of ways across the right shoulder and worn with an upper garment that leaves the midriff and lower back bare. Journalist Jennifer Heath writes in The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore and Politics, “The sari offers choice. It is both revealing and concealing. … The power, how much to show, how much to hide, lies in the woman, prescribed only, though never completely, by her family, culture, and nearest male kin.”

Upon British colonization, however, this native dress became the subject of severe criticism due to its perceived immodesty. British writer Fanny Parks Farlby remarks that “the dress was rather transparent, almost useless as a veil. … The form of the limbs and tint of the skin is traced through it.” Redesigning the sari to suit the Victorian notions of female modesty became an integral part of the social reform program in Bengal and many other regions in India, and succeeded in adding layers to the sari that, considering the climate, was unbefitting the weather. Obvious differences between the British and French notwithstanding, this case illustrates that revealing too much was considered just as faulty as revealing too little. Adopting the same notions of sartorial decency as the colonial onlooker was the way to achieve “just right.”

While these debates and bans continue, Muslim women from Turkey to France are at risk of losing the right to be educated merely for their choice of clothing. Tangible improvements to women’s lives should trump any and all disputes over symbolic ideas. By enacting this ban, the French state will continue to perpetuate the cycle of bans and mandatory enforcements in a tiring repetition of political moves and countermoves that detract attention from the critical needs of contemporary women. As associate professor at the University of Sydney Browyn Winter writes, the French debate “is once again condemning those feminists who have long spoken about the manipulation of their bodies, lives and voices by both the church and state, to keep repeating themselves.”

While the reasons for veiling are as numerous and complex as the women who don them, coercive veiling or unveiling are equally problematic in opposite ways, and a solution can be found only by providing women the tools by which to make their own choices: tools such as education and gainful employment. In the meantime, France has a difficult decision to make. History has shown that veiling predates Islam and will almost certainly outlast these current debates: when legislators attempt to protect la laïcité at any cost, they deprive those who have the most to gain from a rational, secular state from its benefits: a rigorous education, freedom of movement, and a non-coercive atmosphere.