AnAmerican Muslim Woman’s Response to a French Burqa Ban
Earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lambasted the burqa while voicing his support of lawmakers who seek to study the growing trend of burqas in the country and prohibit the wearing of the garment in France. Sarkozy stated that “in our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”
Still raw from the 2004 French hijab ban that prohibited the headscarf and other religious paraphernalia from being worn in public schools, some of France’s five million Muslims are speaking out against the potential legislation. The French Council for Muslim Religion, for instance, warned that probing the burqa issue would only stigmatize Muslims further. Muslim leaders around the world have also voiced their opposition to Sarkozy’s remarks, and cautioned against such a ban.
But as Sarkozy declared to the French Parliament, “the problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it is a problem of the dignity of women. It is a symbol of subservience, of submission. The burqa will not be welcome in our French republic.” However, France is a secular nation and, as such, the French government has no right to espouse interpretations of any religion. As a French law on the separation of church and state reads, “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.” Why, then, does the French government presume the right to delve into theological discussions of Islam?
The French government’s actions are remnants of the colonial mindset; Sarkozy’s comments not only belittle the capacity and autonomy of Muslims around the world, they also seek to impose an interpretation of Islam onto the Muslims in his country. It’s as if the French government is saying to it’s five Million Muslims: “You can stay here as long as you let us tell you what your religion is really about and where you are allowed to practice it.” This type of dehumanization and reduction of the Muslim identity and intellect will not streamline the integration of Muslims into western societies; it will only further the stigmatization of the Muslim “other” as morally and cognitively inferior.
Although I personally believe that the burqa is too often used as a tool of oppression against Muslim women around the world, particularly in societies in which women are most at risk and vulnerable, the French government does not have the right or the appropriate authority to speak about what my religion is. If Sarkozy had spoken about the burqa as private citizen, and not a president, I might have agreed with him. But the moment he turned Muslim religious interpretation and Muslim dress into a policy issue, he violated not only the fundamentals of his nation’s secularism but also the integrity and humanity of Muslims around the world. He took away our right to speak for ourselves by presuming that he could speak on our behalf. And although a burqa ban would work in my best interest as a Muslim woman who sees nothing fair or just or beautiful in “religious” mandates obligating women to experience life through burqas, I recognize that a secular government’s interpretation of any “Islamic” mandate represents the high likelihood of even greater infringements of Muslims’ right to practice our religion in the future.
That being said, in addition to insisting on a right to speak for ourselves and practice our religion as we deem fit, we Muslims must begin to cleanse our collective beliefs of the toxins that plague our families, communities, and societies. Just as Muslims have a personal and collective responsibility to oppose attempts by outside institutions or individuals to speak on our behalf without acknowledging our right to think and act for ourselves, we must also resist patriarchal institutions within our religious communities. We cannot continue to impose outdated and sexist ideals of female modesty and containment on our women. If Muslim women anywhere are made to believe that their religiosity and purity hinges on the wearing of a burqa, I believe that this is dehumanizing and cruel.
Although western governments don’t have the right to rethink our constructions of an ideal femininity, every Muslim has a responsibility to reshape and restructure the discussion of women’s rights in Islam. No longer can we appeal to outdated rhetoric about how Islam gave women the right to vote and inherit centuries before western countries. Today, in 2009, Muslim women represent some of the most oppressed and suppressed women in the world. This must change if Muslims are to have any real positive impact on the world today. Our mothers are our first teachers – as the Prophet Muhammad reminded us – and as a community we will not move forward until our women are allowed to develop socially, intellectually, spiritually and religiously. And, integral to this development is their integration into society as equals.