The burqa ban: it’s complicated

The burqa ban: it’s complicated

Is Nicolas Sarkozy’s so-called burqa ban, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf writes, an expression of rising intolerance in France? Perhaps. Coupled with his expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma, it sure looks like le président is trying to use a cultural wedge to shore up his flagging popularity.

Still, I think the "burqa" issue (or, alternatively, the jilbab + niqab, or abaya issue) is more complicated than David allows. For one thing, France has a long and well-known convention of laïcité — a far stricter notion of secularism, enforced by the state, than the American variety. Banning burqas falls well within that tradition.

Second, one has to admit that critics of full veiling have a point. From 2005 to 2006, I spent about a year and a half in Cairo, Egypt, where full veiling is relatively rare but hijabs — headscarves — are increasingly common. That was one thing, but I’ve just moved to Doha, Qatar, which is more culturally conservative and currently filled with women cloaked in black and covering their faces (many of them likely Saudis visiting for the summer or the holidays).

Although many women here personalize their abayas with elegant embroidery (and it seems that most Qatari women do not wear the full face veil), I find it disconcerting and dehumanizing not to be able to read people’s emotions, to tell if they are frowning or smiling, or even know what they look like. Some Muslim women may find the anonymity liberating or believe that their religion commands it, but full veiling is one cultural practice that I would be more than happy to see killed by globalization.

(I find it particularly absurd when I see a man dressed in, say, an Armani Exchange T-shirt and Diesel jeans walking along with a fully veiled woman and several kids in tow. If you’re going to make your wife wear a shroud, at least man up and throw on a thobe and ghutra.)

Having said all that, I don’t like the notion of French gendarmes arresting or fining people on the street for what they wear. If the French government wants to prohibit state employees from veiling, or require people to uncover their faces when they drive or enter government buildings, fine. Private businesses, like banks, should be allowed to do the same. But we shouldn’t pretend there are easy answers.