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Friday, April 22, 2011

(Published in on 21 April 2011, retrieved from

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Sarkozy hasn’t exactly shied away from controversy since he became French President.

First, he spent a whole lot of campaign money on making himself pretty with expensive makeup – perhaps one of the key reasons he feels people shouldn’t hide their faces.

Then, he brought his girlfriend along on a state visit to India – a country that likes to think pre-marital sex doesn’t exist.

And then – oh, the Muslim-hating Crusader! – he called for a ban on the burqa, and said it went against the rights of women by “imprisoning them”. What’s more, he actually got it enacted.

By saying veils “do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women”, Sarkozy has the unique distinction of leaving both right-wingers and left-wingers in a muddle.

All those who thought he was being politically correct, and hiding the real reason behind the ban on the veil in public places – that a terrorist may be carrying a bunch of explosives under it – had to admit he was more of a feminist than an Islamophobe when he instituted a fine of 150 euros or lessons in French citizenship for women who defied the ban, and of 30,000 euros and a year’s imprisonment for anyone who forced a woman to wear the chador, niqab or burqa (to be doubled if the victim is a minor).

Now, no one can deny the burqa has its uses – it helped Priyanka Chopra get to an event on time, by boarding a suburban train without being mobbed by her fans, and it helped Himesh Reshammiya escape the wrath of music-lovers.

Among other things, it could be a useful mask for people who intend to bomb targets, whatever their religion or causes may be – and France has some great architecture – and it helps men control their carnal desires, if one takes the hard-line clerics at their word.

But then, what does it do for the women? Does it really imprison them, or does it bring them closer to their faith, to God, and make them feel protected?

My first encounter with prejudice against the burqa occurred in London. As I was crossing the street with a Swiss friend, she shook her head in disgust at a man walking with three women swathed in veils, and carrying five shopping bags from Selfridge’s (where a single top could set you back by 700 pounds.)

“Look at that man! How can he force them to wear those when they’re buying such lovely clothes?” she asked.

“Maybe they’re not being forced,” I pointed out.

“Who would voluntarily wear those?” she demanded, with a shudder, “and if they like it, why are they buying from Selfridge’s instead of Tesco’s?”

I found that the question was unanswerable, after I did a documentary on women who chose to wear the hijab. A well-spoken, educated woman who had grown up in Birmingham told me that the veil prevented her from feeling objectified – ironically, a patriarchal term. I’m no feminist. But the response made me wonder whether a woman who chose not to wear the veil was exposing herself to lust. Isn’t there something wrong with that?

Another woman told me she felt more spiritually aware when she was wearing the veil; it made her less vain about her looks. To others, it was an expression of their religion, as simple as wearing a cross or a caste mark.

Does the ban in France, then, go against the rights of these women, who are aware of their choices, and consciously embrace the veil?

One point that most angry protesters seem to forget is that France has simply called for a ban on the veil in public places. Women are free to wear the veil to mosques, if they choose to, and can wear the burqa while travelling in cars.

Besides, those who assume that every woman wearing the veil does so out of choice are as wrong as those who assume every woman wearing the veil is forced to. One of my interviewees, a woman who had discarded the veil in her twenties, told me she resents her relatives even now, for making her feel she was “wanton and unclean” for going without the hijab.

The question that arises next is, does France have the right to tell women what to wear and what not to wear? Can a country direct its citizens to avoid a certain action in public?

The day Saudi Arabia allows women to walk the streets sans burqas, the day Iran admits its female citizens have a right to do away with the headscarf, the day India allows people to kiss in public, and the day any country declares that its citizens are free to do anything they wish to out in the open, one may make a case that France’s ban is unconstitutional.

But there isn’t a single country in the world that doesn’t place restrictions on behaviour on the streets – and I’m not talking about actions that affect other people or expose them to health risks, such as smoking. Whether we personally disagree with these rules or subscribe to them, we cannot deny that the country has a right to put them into effect.

I do believe every individual has a right to practise his or her religion, and a right to freedom of expression – as long as it doesn’t go against the country’s laws. And when your beliefs are in conflict with the laws of the land, you still have a choice – to leave.


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