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Not-so-veiled remarks

india Updated: Jun 29, 2009 21:36 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
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So what does the veil veil? French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent remarks on how Muslim women who wear burqas are a threat to the secular fabric of France have re-ignited the debate — political, cultural and religious — on the significance of this particular garment and its place in a western country’s popular discourse.

“[The burqa] is not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement,” Sarkozy has been quoted as saying. “I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom.” Apart from the minor matter of whether forcing women to abandon the burqa is actually Sarkozy’s idea of France’s idea of freedom (what happened to the principle of laissez faire?), there are other questions here.

There are no statistics available on how many women actually wear the burqa in France, let alone figures of how many of them might voluntarily want to wear it But it’s unfair to assume that all the women who do wear the veil are being coerced into doing so; and that they are, therefore, debasing themselves, making themselves subservient to men and effectively erasing their own identities.

Lots of women willingly wear the veil. Besides, the veil can just as well be seen as a garment of liberation from the male gaze. As the social commentator Faisal al Yafai said last year, while writing about Moroccan feminist Fatema Mernissi’s book, Scheherezade Goes West, “Muslim women who choose to wear [the veil] (and not all do) often claim they are reappropriating their own bodies from the public sphere. The veil is complex. At various times, it has been seen both as an instrument of male oppression and of female liberation.”

By seeing the veil as a threat to secularism (and in Europe, the word ‘secular’ is used in a way rather different from how we use it), Sarkozy is denying the complexity — and the complicated history (Muslim countries like Turkey and Tunisia have banned it) — of the veil. He is being simplistic and reductive, carrying on from the banning of Muslim headscarves in schools in France in 2004.

Sarkozy has said that the veil ‘is not a religious symbol’. Whether it is or not is an altogether different debate. But it is likely that for the French president, it represents a political opportunity.

He made his stand on the veil clear after more than 50 MPs (largely from his own centre-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement) supported a call for a debate on whether the burqa undermined France’s secular credentials.

His remarks were made at the Versailles Palace to both Houses of Parliament. It was the first such speech made by a French President since 1873, and it was made possible after Sarkozy changed the country’s Constitution last year to allow the President to directly address both MPs and senators. And it comes in the wake of his party’s triumph in the elections to the European Parliament — the first time since 1979 that a sitting French President’s party has come out on top in the European election.

Small surprise that his pronouncement was greeted with tremendous applause and the thumping of tables.