Mani Shankar Aiyar seems to believe that the French were being narrow-minded when legislating a ban on the burqa. These people, he says referring to the immigrants, were invited to work in French factories after the last war, at a time when there was a shortage of manpower in that country. So, Aiyar implies, the French had to lump their lifestyle whether they liked it or not. This is like saying that just because Britain followed a liberal immigration policy in the 50s and 60s, Hindu women had the right to commit sati because it was a life style issue and of no concern to the Brits?
There is such a thing as progress, there are universal values, there is the Declaration of the Rights of Man, first enunciated in post-revolutionary France, to which all are subject. To say that the French gave voting rights to women only in 1945 and so are not really qualified to speak about the social and political emancipation of women — as if it was some kind a historic, national failure — is besides the point. France allowed abortion only in the 1970s. But by that time both Simone de Beauvoir and the rampaging student mobs of May 1968 had already changed the politics of sexuality in France forever. It is because of the latter that even someone who is so little representative of French revolutionary thinking and practice as Nicholas Sarkozy dares to have an affair with a singer-songwriter, cohabits with her in the presidential palace before eventually marrying her. You won’t find that happening anywhere else.
The truth is that France’s contribution to the emancipation of women, especially the sexual emancipation of women, is simply immense. It goes right back to the Middle Ages when the troubadours first began singing of women as ideals of beauty, intelligence and virtue, thus inventing romantic love as we know it today. Then, under Louis XIV aristocratic women ran some of the most formidable salons of the day, which were a meeting ground for men of letters, thinkers, painters and musicians. These salons were instrumental in the development of good taste, manners and the evolution of the French language. In the early 18th century, Montesquieu published a book called Persian Letters, letters written by a Persian traveller in Europe, worried about what was happening to his harem in his absence. He is amazed, he writes, at the sight of French women of good social stock, standing about in the streets and conversing freely with complete strangers, albeit of similar social stock.
The French 18th century was also the century of libertine freedom, described in the books of Marquis de Sade and in Choderlos de Laclos’ masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In the latter book, a women of great spirit and intelligence is shown to be bending the male world to her will and her free way of life. Sade, for his part, pushed the boundaries of intellectual freedom and imagination as far as it was possible to go in his day. All this amounted to considerable social progress. No French woman was writing books of the kind Jane Austen made famous in the Anglophone world, of young women waiting and waiting to be married off suitably.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, French women finally came into their own as writers, poets, thinkers and artists. We can mention the names of George Sand, Colette, Anais Nin and Simone de Beauvoir — women who pushed the limits of the permissible especially in the sexual sense of the term, women who provided intellectual leadership to both free thinking men and women.
So, this is the position from which Sarkozy speaks when he says that the burqa is a prison for women. It’s a position of historical and intellectual superiority represented by emancipated women like Carla Bruni, for instance. The French don’t see the burqa as a lifestyle issue. They see it as an intrusion of religion into personal matters, matters of individual choice. They see it as something that erases the individuality of women, wipes them off the social space and excludes them from participating in public life in any meaningful way. Any ‘good Muslim’ would agree with this reading. The burqa protects women from the sexual predatory gaze of men, but also protects men against feminine charms. The net effect is to constitute women as purely sexual beings, as sex objects, a fact to be constantly signalled to the world outside through the wearing of the burqa.
The French ban on the burqa, which is being followed by other countries like Belgium and Italy, aims at making Muslim women feel safe as sexual beings. It guarantees them a place in the social space where they can discuss their condition, indeed, their subjugation, on terms of absolute equality with their fellow men. The French like taking on their adversaries in a head-on collision because that is how they understand progress is made. The Hindu practice is to create an alternative space for alternative lifestyles, so that a measure of social harmony is guaranteed. See the difference between us and France. The French always aim for the universal and not the peculiarly French.
Banning the burqa is an idea whose time has come.
( Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal