Timing Is Everything: Nicolas Sarkozy Defends Women’s Rights by Restricting Them

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I must open this piece by stating that as someone who believes in equality between men and women, I would not be happy if my country or my religion or my culture told me I must dress or look differently from my male peers. I am not happy when it happens in any country, including my own, the United States. When I turn on the television and hear stories of women spending countless dollars to look like a certain celebrity or see magazines marketed toward women that encourage them to do, act, or look a certain way to garner more male attention, whereas men participate far less  frequently in this charade, I am disgusted.

So when Afghanistan was the country of the moment leading up to the September 11th attacks and America’s subsequent response, I recall feeling angry every time I saw a woman in a burqa on television. My gut response was one tempered by the typical Western media approach to more conservative aspects of Islam. “Why must these women wear something covering every inch of their bodies, while men are left to dress according to their very whim?” I tried to put myself in these women’s shoes, knowing I would be incredibly angry if I went from wearing clothing I chose on my own to being forced to adhere to a new government policy that dictated my very move, even down to my personal style.I would feel trapped, limited, removed, alienated. I would feel separated from my former self, as I use my clothing and style to reflect my personality and my mood. Most of all, I would feel different, and ultimately inferior to the male peers with whom I was once, more or less, visually equal.

Yet now, as the burqa has resurfaced again in the Western media, my opinion has changed.

While looking for classroom discussion topics yesterday on CNN.com, I came across a piece on Nicolas Sarcozy’s recent statement on the use of the burqa in France.

“The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France.”

Reading this quotation alone sent a flood of opinions through my brain, one of them being “this is utter crap.” Clearly, the use of the burqa as mandated by law is not exactly fair to women, but to set a limitation on its use, especially in public spaces, is just as bad, if not worse.

With Iran in the news, our focus on the role of religion in conjunction with the government has been renewed, but has France’s supposed secular state opened up a new problem, perhaps one that demonstrates it is equally as dangerous to swing the opposite direction?

France,  a prime example of secular statehood, is looking to cloak anti-Islamic rhetoric in the fabric of women’s rights. Though Sarkozy claims that his inquiry into whether or not a ban on the burqa runs counter to France’s constitution is being conducted for the sake of protecting women and not based on the question of religion, he is doing quite the opposite. Of course his inquiry has to do with religion. To be more specific, not only does it unfairly and disportionately target the French Muslim community (um, do you see anyone else wearing burqas?), but it also, in an ironic twist, targets women by limiting women’s freedom of expression (again, um, know any men wearing burqas?)

So while I understand and sympathize with the reasoning behind Sarkozy’s proposal, that being to ensure women’s equality, I completely disagree with the way he is going about attempting this grand charge. He is exhibiting behavior that is the perfect example of what the women of so many marginalized communities often complain: 1) he is attempting to fight their struggles for them and 2) he is galvanizing a small issue in a minority sect of a larger community. He is using an attempt to protect women’s rights as a means of limiting them.

Within this attempt, Sarkozy is also acting to push a bigger issue. His real hidden agenda relates to protecting the French, and further, European identity, in the wake of rapid immigration from former European colonies. He is employing the burqa issue as a symbol, a metaphor for a greater “problem.” The general public is not as blind as he may think. And while some Muslims, including those active in French government, support this inquiry, their motives may be for protection and self-preservation more than anything else. Afterall, if you have a small thorn in your side, a splinter in the widespread acceptance of Muslim communities by way of a small, more conservative, and thus perceived as more radical Muslim minority sect, your community’s attempt to assimilate is going to be thwarted. By alienating the women within the population who choose, for whatever reason (one that is rightfully theirs and one the public should respect), to wear the burqa, one can distract the focus on Muslims to a focus on specific Muslims, the “other” Muslims who are different from “us,” the more assimilated, moderate, visually non-threatening to the European Identity types.

So sure, I would not want to wear a burqa, nor would Mr. Sarkozy, but that, as we all know, is completely irrelevant. It’s a distraction from the heart of the issue, which is xenophobic, anti-Muslim rhetoric to protect the European Identity as it crumbles to ashes. In a country where any religious clothing (down to a simple Star of David or crucifix necklace) has been outlawed from use in public schools and government jobs since 2004 and where even surveying the religious diversity of the nation is not allowed on a government level, this inquiry and potential future legislation is taking things too far. What a woman chooses to do in a public place, but on her watch, in her private time, even if that means adhering to something Sarkozy and his government may find objectionable and an affront to women’s rights, is her business. And no matter her ethnic, racial, geographic, or religious background, it needs to stay that way.