Well, I’ll be. Looks like people are calling the French arrogant. Perhaps we could riff wittily on the teeth of the British, compare Germans to clockwork and call it a day.
Or perhaps we could take a moment to examine the issue behind this round of stereotype affirmation. The match starting the fire was a comment made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy: Burqas, he said, are not welcome in France.
Sixty-five French ministers pushed for the government to consider a prohibition of such Muslim coverings, and Sarkozy’s non-grata comment came in a related speech. Although the president didn’t outright endorse a burqa ban, he did call them signs of subservience and degradation. There wasn’t, shall we say, much mincing of words.
The outfits in question are worn by observant Muslim women, and the racy versions enshroud them almost entirely, leaving a slit for the eyes. (Others provide only a fabric mesh to look through.) The women who wear burqas look, to borrow a phrase, like extras in a low-budget ghost film. More important, however, is that donning these clothes is often a choice made for a woman rather than by her.
Depending on how you look at it, the proposed ban, which would make it illegal to wear burqas outside the home, can seem heroic or racist; it is a blow to religious freedom or a boon for secular liberation. Although this news broke a few weeks ago, the flood of response has yet to show signs of letting up.
The two main justifications for a ban are that women who wear burqas are having their own rights undermined and are meanwhile undermining the secular tradition of France. The latter is long-established and stronger than most countries’; secularism has even been called its “state religion.”
Recent evidence is a 2004 law that banned the wearing of conspicuous religious insignia in schools. Although this included large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, the move was considered mainly a blow to Islamic head scarves. The country survived the controversy, however, which likely made it easier to start this more direct campaign against Muslim apparel.
More subjective is the claim that burqas are a blow to women’s rights. During the discussions of the French National Assembly, the burqa was called an “ambulatory prison,” and the West has used it as a symbol of (supposed) foreign barbarism since Europeans started wantonly colonizing other continents centuries ago.
Some prominent French Muslim women, such as Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, agreed. “The burqa is a prison, it's a straitjacket,” she said in relation to a burka-wearing Moroccan being denied French citizenship. “It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes … ”
Because women who wear the burqa often do so because of peer or family pressure, making it illegal would, as the logic goes, give the women a way to throw off their shrouds without being socially stigmatized.
The problem is that not all Muslim women wear burqas under duress, crazy though it may seem; the ban's supporters want to “liberate” some people against their will by depriving them of the ability to dress how they wish — a right bound up closely with one’s senses of comfort and identity.
An Indian friend once offered me the analogy of some foreign power sweeping into America and telling me to take off all my clothes because I was now free and could thank them any time. Just because Western standards for indecent exposure are different from those in other societies, that doesn’t make them uniquely right, and saying that people can only live in "The Land of Human Rights" if they follow a certain dress code seems awfully counterintuitive.
This is also where the arrogance comes in, with a Western government potentially forcing Muslims to be free whether they like it or not, with the proponents assuming women who want to wear the veil only do so because they don’t know any better, with ministers deciding that they’ll deprive citizens of choice for their own good.
On some level, there is xenophobia at work here, too. In her book “Dress Codes,” Ruth Rubinstein explains that “clothing signs endow strangers with known characteristics.” The signals clothing can send are so powerful, she adds, that it’s actually illegal to dress like a police officer or doctor in America.
The signals that burqas send make Westerners, scared as they are of Muslims because of some very isolated and horrid individuals, uncomfortable. Granted, it's also unsettling to not see facial expressions, the primary means of communication, but one has to wonder if Muslim women wore equally obscuring clothing that sent more soothing signals — like, say, full-body Santa Claus costumes — whether the National Assembly would even be having this discussion.
All that, however, doesn’t mean a ban would do more harm than good, but that the nonhegemonic side bears serious consideration during the debate. Lest the playful stereotype become an unfortunate truth.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.