The man next to me in the lift in the Eiffel Tower was an Arab, but he was not wearing the thoub, the traditional white dress many Arab men wear. He was smiling as he looked at the woman staring at him; she was most likely his wife. I could not tell if she was smiling. She was clad entirely in a black burqa, or niqab, with only her eyes visible. He wore Western clothes; I don’t know if she had chosen to wear the burqa on one of the hottest evenings in Paris at summertime.
Unlike in the wealthy West Asia, most Parisian buildings are not air-conditioned. I can imagine she felt stuffy, sweaty and restricted in that attire. An Australian friend, who is a lawyer and has spent some time in Tehran, had to wear such an attire there, and she told me she experienced headaches, and felt like she was a prisoner.
Nicolas Sarkozy wants to prevent French Muslim women experiencing this restriction. He says that the burqa makes women “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity”. Five years ago, France banned headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools and by government employees. In an interview with Financial Times, Fadela Amara, a French minister, said: “The burqa represents not a piece of fabric but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes (equality), one of the founding principles of our republic.” France, she added, was a beacon for an enlightened Islam at ease with modernity, so it was necessary to fight the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam”. Elsewhere, she has said that after the ban on the headscarf, French Muslim women have felt empowered to challenge male-dominated orthodoxy within their communities.
How could these good-intentioned politicians help, so that women can confront the orthodoxy that keep them wrapped and shrouded?
One option is to ban the burqa, even though, as Amara admits, enforcing it would be impractical. A weakly enforced ban strengthens the fundamentalists and weakens the state and its institutions. The other option is to respect the woman’s choice. If she wishes to wear it in her private life, let her; if she doesn’t wish to wear it, protect her freedom when her male relatives (and even female elders) insist otherwise. But, crucially, help build a society that protects individual rights, so that the one who wishes to get out of the claustrophobia that communities can impose feels confident to do so.
It isn’t easy. In Britain, cabinet minister Jack Straw requested Muslim women in his constituency to remove the veil during face-to-face meetings, provoking a backlash. British multiculturalism is confused, pleasing neither the orthodox nor the liberal opinion. Britain funds faith schools and permits people to wear religious symbols. Aishah Azmi, a classroom assistant at a faith-based school, refused to remove her niqab at work. The school dismissed her. She lost her case before the employment tribunal. The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, who agreed Azmi should be sacked, had earlier said that Muslim women wearing the veil were “frightening and intimidating” to others.
That’s simplistic and discriminatory: it seems in each instance it is always the woman—the one wearing a miniskirt, or the one wearing the burqa— who must adjust, because men find such women—with too many clothes, or too few—intimidating. The problem, then, is with men.
There is another argument—that the veil provides security to a woman who is an immigrant and finds herself in an alien culture where, from her perspective, women are disrespected. The politics of veil, as Jane Kramer argued in a fascinating essay in The New Yorker in 2004, is highly complex. Think of a veiled Muslim woman in Paris staring down, avoiding eye contact with a poster, which uses female nudity to sell a product. Of course, such posters should not be banned, but feminists do find such images gratuitous, in that they treat women as commodities. Those posters offend the devout too, just as, as the British minister says, the image of women behind the veil can “frighten and intimidate” some people.
That can turn horrific. In July, in a Dresden courtroom, a German man of Russian origin stabbed Marwa Sherbini, a 31-year-old Egyptian woman, killing her. She had sued him after he abused her at a playground dispute because she wore a headscarf, and she asked him to mind his business.
This is where intractable positions in the debate over the politics of veil have brought us. It is wrong to force a woman to wear the veil—or to discard it. The choice should be hers. The challenge for society is to practise equality such that she trusts and embraces the ideal, and feels safe and comfortable discarding the veil—and more—if that’s what she wants.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org