This week, French President Nicholas Sarkozy used a historic state-of-the-nation address to proclaim that the burqua, or face-covering, was a symbol of women’s subservience that was “not welcome in France”.
Sarkozy backed calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the issue, following suggestions from a government spokesman that the face-veil could be banned in public places — which amounts to an outright ban, since even the Taliban saw no need for women to veil in private spaces.
The burqua is worn by only a tiny proportion of Muslim women in France, but Sarkozy’s speech is yet another act of political stigmatisation against an already marginalised community.
I asked French academic Dr Rachel Bloul how to translate “dog-whistle politics” into French. Dr Bloul responded that she did not think that there was such a term, but that having based his political reputation on a loud commitment to law and security, Sarkozy is “falling back on the same kind of manipulation that has allowed him to win previous elections, and does not care about the consequences for anyone else.” She added that after watching the footage of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy smiling proudly in the background during the speech, she thought that Sarkozy was also out to impress his wife.
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Last year, I spent a few days in Paris with a French friend of Moroccan background. She and her family and friends related stories of almost routine discrimination — of elderly relatives being rejected as unworthy for citizenship after fifty years of law-abiding, tax-paying residence, of always having to strive that little bit harder in work and study in order to prove yourself to your non-Muslim colleagues, of the banning of religious symbols in public schools, which was seen as particularly targeting Muslim girls wearing hijab.
My friend now lives in Sydney, and said that she felt a sense of resignation in the face of Sarkozy’s speech. “It’s just another chapter. The kind of events that are almost unthinkable in Australia are commonplace in France. It’s supposed to be about the burqua, but it’s really about something deeper — about attitudes to Muslims.”
Many Muslim women, including many hijabis, are deeply uncomfortable with face-covering. It is so vanishingly rare among Muslims in the West that many observant Muslims have only encountered it at a distance.
In Australia, a disproportionate number of the women who observe this practice seem to be converts. Their stated commitment to face-covering as their “personal choice” is rendered problematic by the fact that many of them don’t believe that personal choice over dress standards should be extended to women in Muslim-majority societies. While they believe that covering the face is commendable rather than obligatory, they defend the mandatory covering of women’s hair in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But as Sarkozy’s speech illustrates, they are not the only ones who think that choice is a one-way street — you can choose, so long as you choose what I tell you to choose. There is no single experience of face-covering, just as there is no single experience of the bikini. Some Muslim women describe face-covering as providing a sense of privacy and comfort.
It is true that some Muslim women and girls practise various forms of veiling under family and community pressure (while other Muslim families are equally horrified when their daughter begin to cover). But those are not the kind of dynamics where government intervention can serve any useful purpose. As my friend observed, after politicians began to attempt to regulate the hijab back in 1989, many teenage girls adopted it as a form of rebellion. Sarkozy’s speech seems likely to add a similar cachet to the burqua.