‘I agree with President Sarkozy’, said the newsagent in Holland Park as I sauntered in to pick up the day’s papers. “Don’t you?”
To hear anyone in London agree with the French president would be surprising. But I was in for a bigger shock.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I replied delicately. I was on a brief holiday and following the news was not a top priority.
“He’s spoken out against the burqa and it’s about time someone did.” And then, reaching for the papers he’d put aside for me, he added: “Here, take a look at what he’s said. As far as I’m concerned, it makes a lot of sense.”
Not surprisingly, it was a substantial story. I read it standing in the shop. At first, I was taken aback that the president of France should have spoken about the burqa and in an address to the parliament at that. But the more I read, the more sense it seemed to make. Presidential addresses ought to be about issues that transcend the daily struggle of politics and Sarkozy had framed the burqa in bigger, more important, terms.
“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” the French President said in his Versailles speech. “The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.”
“What do you think?” It was the newsagent. He was patiently waiting for my reaction. It suddenly dawned on me that he was a Muslim.
“I totally agree,” but then, unable to stop myself, I blurted out: “But how come you do?”
“Why? Do you think Muslims should disagree?” Mercifully, he saw the funny side of my foolishness and started laughing. “This is not a religious matter. It’s not a spiritual or moral issue. It’s simply a question of how you treat women. And there are male chauvinists and hateful bullies in all societies. If we oppose them in England, why shouldn’t we oppose them in Saudi or Pakistan or wherever?”
Actually, that was precisely Sarkozy’s point: “I want to say solemnly that it (the burqa) will not be welcome on our territory.” Perhaps, more than any other, this sentence was received with rapturous applause. In fact, Sarkozy’s comments on the burqa captured the headlines, even though this was the first presidential address to the French parliament after Charles Louis Napolean Bonaparte 136 years ago and despite the fact that Sarkozy’s 45-minute address touched on many subjects, including the economic crisis.
Beyond his indisputably correct comments on the burqa, what struck me about Sarkozy’s speech was how different it was to the sort of fare we, in India, have grown used to. Neither our politicians, nor our president talk to us about issues other than politics. Either for reasons of misplaced political correctness or because they haven’t thought through the matter themselves — and I bet it’s the latter — they avoid moral issues. This, I might add, is both sad and a mistake.
Moral issues need to be questioned and debated. They must not be buried under the weight of custom or under fear of the controversy any comment could provoke. If politicians feel strongly about them they must speak out. Not just because silence would be deception but because that’s how a debate is started. And democratic societies need to question and debate.
Let me also add that just because a politician speaks doesn’t mean his or her point of view will be accepted. Sarkozy knows that only too well. So let not an exaggerated opinion of themselves become an excuse for timidity or reticence. However, because they are politicians and are practised speakers they could frame the issue intelligently and create a platform for equally thought-provoking responses. And that is important.
But will we ever hear Manmohan Singh, L. K. Advani or Sonia Gandhi speak to us about issues such as the right of women to drink in pubs, wear jeans in colleges and lead normal lives after widowhood? I hope so. But I doubt it.