La France et la Burqa: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Stand for Equality

Is the burqa a symbol of profound female modesty? Female modesty, of course, is valued by all three of the monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.There is, in fact, a strong positive correlation between the more conservative the practice and a greater demand for female modesty.This insistence upon female modesty is tied to the view that women and men differ in ways that require women to be careful not to present themselves in public in sexually provocative ways.Is the burqa indeed an embodiment of that idea?

The President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, does not think so; and he wishes to have the wearing of the burqa in France legally forbidden.To see that Sarkozy is right, it suffices to compare the difference between the hijab and burqa.The hijab covers what is traditionally considered to be one of the most significant aspects of a woman’s appearance, namely her hair.However, the hijab covers a woman’s hair without denying her an actual identity in public space.Indeed the hijab allows for considerable self-expression.For example, the hijab may match the color of the Muslim woman’s attire.

With the burqa, on the other hand, what we get is something akin to American Slavery, because a woman wearing a burqa is in effect the denial of the woman’s identity in public space.This is because the face is entirely covered allowing only an opening for the wearer’s eyes.If I am right in claiming that the burqa denies Muslim woman an identity in public space, then an article that recently appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde (22 June 2009) has gotten things quite wrong.

The article, written in favor of women in France wearing the burqa is entitled “En France, la liberté pour tous, sauf pour les musulmans!”The essence of the argument of the article is that no one forces Muslim women in France to wear the burqa; rather, it is of their own free will that they do so.Alas, the simple truth of the matter is that even though no one forces a person to engage in a given form of behavior, it may nonetheless be true that the person engages in that behavior for reasons that are not morally salutary.

After decades of American Slavery, many blacks thought it “natural” to act in a subservient manner towards whites.These blacks have been traditionally referred to as Uncle Toms.These subservient blacks subordinated themselves to whites without anyone forcing them to do so.Yet, there behavior was clearly open to strong moral criticism.The point here, of course, is that behavior in which a person chooses to engage without being coerced may nonetheless have at its foundation a wealth of morally objectionable behavior.

The tradition of the burqa is akin to the “natural attitude of subordination” that was characteristic of many blacks during American Slavery.Wearing a burqa is rather like an Uncle Tom, in that in either case one wrongly delights in one’s inferiority.And just as the attitude of black subordination was imposed by whites in order to affirm the supremacy of whites, the tradition of the burqa was imposed by Muslim men upon Muslim women in order to affirm the superiority of the men over the women.

The burqa effectively treats Muslim women as property by denying them an identity in public.Indeed, the burqa forces Muslim women to have a lower status in public than the pet dog; for even the pet dog is allowed to have an identity in public.

Needless to say, our face and our actions are the two most important aspects of our identity.When we have engaged in morally obnoxious behavior, we typically hide our face from the camera.By contrast, when we have exhibited morally honorable behavior, we want our face to be associated with that behavior—not the face of some other person.

A woman’s hiding her face in public is not an expression of modesty.The proof of this is none other than the attire of the Catholic nun.

The habit which a nun wears is the very opposite of salacious attire.Any man who looks with sexual desire at a woman who is a nun and is so attired is a man who is psychologically deranged.Thus, the nun and her attire stand as proof par excellence that a woman can maintain unquestionable modesty in public and be accorded such respect by all men around her without having to hide her face.

For Muslim women, the hijab more than suffices to accord Muslim women the unquestionably standing of modesty and respect by men.Every man who sees a woman wearing the hijab readily understands the moral significance of her doing so and conducts himself accordingly.

We all know that there was a time when marriage effectively made women the property of men.Indeed, there was a time when a husband could not be officially charged with raping his wife, though he had systematically forced her to have sex with him against her will.The burqa is none other than an artifact of the ideology that women are the property of men.This is why President Nicolas Sarkozy is absolutely right, on both moral and political grounds, in opposing the burqa and thus rejecting the practice of wearing the burqa in the Republic of France.

Sarkozy’s own words are as follows:

La burqa n’est pas la bienvenue sur le territoire de la Republique

President Sarkozy has rightly observed that the problem with the burqa has nothing at all to do with the religion of Islam and everything to do with the very dignity of women—Muslim women, in particular.Freedom of religion is not the right to undermine the dignity of the adherents of a religion, be they women or men.It is this extraordinarily profound insight that Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy, le Président de la République Française, so majestically grasps.

Tout simple, nous devrions nous appuyer sur la liberty afin d’affirmer également la dignité de chaque personne, quelque soit son sexe ou la couleur de sa peau or bien son culte religieux.Il va sans dire que le port de la burqa est complètement incompatible avec une telle conception de la liberté.

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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3 Responses to La France et la Burqa: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Stand for Equality

  1. AJ says:

    Bravo! “absolutely correct”! Who are you to validate the article statment. Obviously, the author of this garbage is denying women to voice their opinions. in the article mentioned, various Muslim women state that they are not forced to wear “burka” in any way, shape, or form. The author of this garbage is claiming to enter the minds of all these women and recognise that they are wearing the burka based on some hidden force or authoriy. I would advise the author to open up his mind–which is covered by more than a burka–I would say take the burka off your mind!!!!!!!!

  2. John says:

    I am writing my own blogpost in response to yours. It is a fitting time since it seems now that the law is actually in effect. As I say in my article, although I agree with the idea that burqa is an example of the internalization of oppression, I think that legislation is not the proper way to go about it. This is highlighted by the unfortunate connection you made to the situation of blacks and the “Uncle Tom” character. Just as we cannot legislate away feelings of subserviency, we should not be able to legislate away modes of dress in public because we feel that the person underneath is being oppressed. Since when is government responsible for our Moral Health as you put it? Doesn’t this offend your notion of le gouvernement laïque? Ultimately the imposition of bans like this (and the law recently passed in AZ legalizing racial profiling) represents an attempt on the part of governments to distract voters from really important issues that may get incumbents voted out of office, like global warming, economic reform, and actual real security, not the semblance of it in the form of religious discrimination.

  3. Pingback: Blog 11 – La Burqa « Srroche20's Blog

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