Wednesday, June 24, 2009

National Interests or Secular Paranoia?

Tucked into a speech to the French parliament that concentrated on the French economic mess, President Sarkozy of France said yesterday that the French are opposed to women wearing burqas (the garment worn by some Muslim women that fully covers their face and body save for a tiny space for the eyes) in France. He didn’t flinch from using strong words. The burqa is “against French values,” he said, adding that the French “cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He said the burqa “is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. I want to say it solemnly: It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” Sarkozy thereby gave his backing to a multi-party initiative, by several legislators, for a parliamentary commission to study the burqa and how to stop its spread.

French hostility toward the burqa is said to lie in their concern that the women who wear it are forced to do so (usually by their husbands). Obviously, hidden in this attitude lurks a hefty amount of anti-Muslim sentiment as well. The French are intolerant toward — even suspicious of — religion of any kind spilling over into secular life. Their revolution, unlike ours, was deeply anti-clerical (as well as anti-monarchical and anti-aristocratic), and they used their national razor with a frenzied joy to slice off the head of more than one priest.

The effects of that revolution are felt today. In a law enacted in 2004, the French banned students of any religion from wearing any overt religious garb in public schools — no Muslim headscarves, Jewish scull caps or large Christian crosses are permitted. The French idea is that immigrants should assimilate to the French way, which is secular, although their attitude that no immigrant could ever possibly become fully French makes this nearly impossible.

In America, our attitude is entirely different. When it comes to sartorial matters, more or less anything goes. In Cairo, President Obama took pains to mention that Americans have no problem with Muslim women wearing headscarves, but in Normandy he acknowledged that he understood the French point of view. Obama acknowledges that our different national histories have led to different conclusions about how religion fits into society.

Head scarves here are one thing, but they’re a far cry from burqas. As a friend of mine put it — bluntly expressing the horror many Westerners like me feel at the sight of a burqa — “What kind of society dresses its women in bags?” Women in the West gave up the veil during the Renaissance, and in liberating their faces for public view, they simultaneously unleashed public acceptance of female vanity (a bad thing, when in excess), as well as the female intellect (a good thing, even in small doses). Putting a public face on women brought women into the public sphere.

Last fall, I stepped into a New York subway car and sat down to a startling sight — two women, seated across from me, by chance seated side-by-side. On the one side was a Muslim woman in a full niqab (different from a burqa, which has a screen, the niqab is a completely black, top-to-toe covering with a small horizontal slit for the eyes). On the other side, squeezed up against her (the subway was crowded), was a young twenty-something mother, baby tucked into a stroller in front of her. She was dressed in one of those tight, sleeveless spandex tops that explicitly reveals the form and cleavage of the breasts, long dangly earrings, a very, very short skirt, and platform heels.

Considered separately, the outfits might very well each have annoyed me, were I to have let my mind go that way. They were the bookends of the way women exist in the modern world. Taken together, however, they were hilarious — worthy of a New Yorker cover. (If no one’s done this yet, I hereby offer the idea).

Although the woman in black sort of scared me, in a mild sort of way, I was more irritated than scared. The outfit stood for female oppression. But as I said, the deeper reason is because when there’s no face in public there’s no face at all. On the other hand, the spandexed woman frightened me as well. She, in her own way, also stood for female oppression. For whom, exactly, was she in such a state of undress, if not for others who are not the father of her child?

At the same time, the sight of these two women sitting together on a subway in New York was, in retrospect, uplifting, perhaps even beautiful, in a Walt Whitman, Leaves of Subway sort of way. This is democratic America, after all, not democratic France. We’re probably about as tolerant as a society can get.

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