Is the burqa a prison?

Sarkozy says it is. But wouldn't a ban be just another attack on women's freedom?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published June 22, 2009 9:01PM (EDT)

The burqa imprisons women "behind netting," deprives them of their identity and social life, and is entirely unwelcome in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Monday in a speech before parliament. In response, the crowd of sober legislators went wild with applause. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women," Sarkozy continued. "We cannot accept that some women in our country are prisoners behind a grille, cut off from social life, deprived of their identity."

Sarkozy's comments follow a call by a group of legislators for a special commission to investigate ways to discourage women from wearing the all-encompassing fabric and even a discussion about instituting an all-out ban. It shouldn't come as any surprise -- after all, the country, which is home to the largest Muslim minority in Europe, banned head scarves from public schools in 2004.

It's interesting that Sarkozy's rhetoric focuses on women's rights, because these debates are so often concerned with outsiders' experiences of the burqa -- the anxiety caused by an anonymous, faceless stranger passed on the street, the discomfort of having a burqa-clad woman as your child's teacher, the perceived threat to secularism. Sarkozy isn't interested in having  a discussion about the burqa's appropriateness at polling places or the DMV, though; this is a debate about its very existence. Forget the practical problems that arise from covering one's body from head to toe, he's troubled by the symbolism of doing so.

It's patently true that the burqa is "a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women" when a woman is forced by her husband, family or the state to cover up. What if she wears it of her own accord, though? Certainly, that's the case for some of the small minority of women in France who wear it. Going after abusive spouses who force their wives to veil is one thing; going after all veiled women, including those who actively choose it themselves, based on a host of factors that are far, far too complex to summarize here, is quite another. (Not to mention, Immigration Minister Eric Besson suggested to Reuters that a burqa ban could mean that women who are forced into veiling would be confined to their homes. How's that for imprisonment?)

Besides, if we're talking about marital influence or pressure -- and, if this isn't a religious issue, as Sarkozy says -- then why stop at the burqa? If you started outlawing perceived symbols of sartorial subjugation, there would be no end. What truly makes women prisoners is policing their bodies from the outside. As I wrote before about the storied history of the head scarf in Iran, women have been punished both for wearing and not wearing it. Yes, attacks on women's personal freedoms are wrong, but a broad burqa ban would be just that.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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