Monsieur Sarkozy, would you like to try this lovely Burka on for me?
Very well, that is your personal determination of course.
But if I may ask, how would you feel if France forced you to wear it against your will?
Now, for a French woman who freely chooses to wear a Burka, will France forcing her to take it off cause her to feel that way? How is it any different?
It is a matter of principle, mon cher président. That is of course if we are interested in that sort of detail as opposed to broad cultural absolutism.
(Versailles, France) French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced Monday that the Burka and the Niqab are not welcome in France. Interdit!
(The Burka is a mesh face covering worn by small minority of Muslim women, most notably in Afghanistan. The Niqab is a similar covering that has an opening for the eyes.)
Now, I am not one to advocate for either the Burka or the Niqab. As a Muslim, I don't believe that my religion sanctions them; from a more personal standpoint, I happen to dislike them.
Let me divulge my religious perspective first:
Like the majority of Muslims worldwide, I adopt the common scholarly ruling that interprets the concept of Hijab to mean covering the head and body modestly, but not the face. (A minority of scholars do sanction the Niqab. Fewer still, believe that the head need not be covered at all.)
Second, allow me to explain why I personally do not agree with the Niqab and Burka (let me stress, this is my personal opinion):
The way I see it, the Niqab and Burka carry plenty of liabilities but no benefits. For me, the only potentially compelling benefit would be fulfilling one's religious obligation, but since I do not subscribe to the suggestion that they are religiously mandated, then there goes the only benefit.
Now I am left with only the liabilities.
Simply put, concealing one's face in a modern urban environment -- as opposed to the desert for example -- strikes me as patently impractical on a host of levels. It severely impedes a woman's ability to function in daily transactional situations; renders basic social interaction paralyzing for others; brings more, not less, unwanted attention to the woman; and in truth, raises questions about public security.
Now let me be clear here, I am not suggesting that Muslim women who choose to wear the Niqab represent an intrinsic security threat. If anything, there is probably a negative correlation between women who wear the Niqab and their likelihood of breaching laws as compared to the average person.
What I am saying is that walking around incognito could undermine society's efforts, which primarily depend on face recognition, to enact security regulations. At the very least, this is a valid concern and a debate worth having.
Interestingly, Mr. Sarkozy's rationale for the ban is not centered on public security concerns, but on what the burka symbolizes to him. "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience," he opined.
Now in many cases, this is so. It is no secret, for example, that the overzealous Taliban enforce the burka on Afghan women with little consideration for their input. But let's not confuse matters; the evil here is not the burka per se. It is the usurpation of a woman's personal freedom (Sarkozy had better duck here). That is what we ought to be concerned with, and that's precisely why I oppose the ban.
Moreover, contrary to what many in the West are loathe to accept, some women actually choose the burka or the Niqab for themselves.
A few years ago while vacationing in Egypt, I was visiting a cousin when I was rather taken aback to see her greet me at her front door in a Niqab.
It turns out I was not the only one baffled by her sudden metamorphosis. All of my relatives, including women who cover their hair, were equally stunned at first.
(Readers should note that occurrences of the Burka or the Niqab are hardly commonplace even within Muslim-majority countries -- with the notable exception of conservative societies like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan).
Now most Westerners are preconditioned to believe that if they see a Niqab-clad woman walking down the street, she is doubtless the product of oppression by some overprotective male family member.
But this is not the case for my cousin. Her husband, though noted for his piety, had no bearing on her decision; in fact, he tried to talk her out of it. But she stood firm arguing that the Niqab helped her minimize materialistic distractions and focus more "serenely" on the spiritual endeavors she had committed her life to, including her charitable work for the poor. (She happens to be an educated, self-made social entrepreneur.)
For her, the Niqab was a lifestyle choice that made her happy, and it was of her own choosing.
Hey, if it works for her, then all the more power to her.
You see, while I do not believe in the Niqab and the Burka, I do believe in this one other thing I picked up in my high school American history class. I believe in the right of others to disagree with me. Moreover, I believe in their right to practice what they believe so long as it is not harmful to others.
That's where Mr. Sarkozy and I part ways.
While we both disagree with the Burka, he wishes to enforce his perspective on others, I don't.
I believe every woman is entitled to the freedom to make personal choices for herself. Of course, this also means the choice not to wear a Burka or Niqab in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, as it is to wear them in France or the UK.
As such, for me, it is not the Burka and the Niqab that are so much at stake if France were to enact a ban on them; it is the versatility of French democracy.
Is there a real difference between France or Turkey forcing women to remove their veils, and Saudi Arabia or Iran forcing them to keep them on? Well there is one baffling difference: we hypocritically label the former as liberation, and the latter as oppression. That is a double standard that sacrifices the integrity of the principle for the benefit of arbitrary cultural determinism.
Should the state be mandated to tell citizens what they can or cannot wear? That is the real question.
At the end of the day, truly democratic states ought to look at the Niqab and the Burka, not from a geopolitical standpoint, but from a personal freedoms standpoint, as just another fashion choice.
There are many fashion statements out there that invariably offend someone: facial tattoos, dyed Mohawks, exposed cleavage, revealing miniskirts, 50 piercings on a lip, etc.
If you don't like something, the answer is simple, don't do it to yourself. But if someone else makes a different choice, modern democratic society's reaction ought to be: Laissez-Faire (to use a French phrase meaning to each his own).
So Mr. Sarkozy, just don't wear a Burka, and if Carla Bruni wishes to wear a Niqab, talk her out of it. If she insists, then part ways if you wish. But mon dieu, do not undermine the freedom of others to choose for themselves.
And if you do, then at least get down from your high chair of French sophistiqué, and stand in that corner over there next to the Taliban; because in trying too hard not to be like them, you are ironically becoming them.