In his speech in Cairo, President Obama mentioned no less than three times the headscarf sometimes worn by Muslim women. Each time, his purpose was to stress "the right of women and girls to wear the hijab"--but never their right not to wear it. It was as if it had never occurred to the president that this sartorial practice could be anything but wholly voluntary.
The French, whose 2004 ban on the hijab and other religious attire in public schools Obama was indirectly criticizing, are more attuned to the use of the headscarf as an instrument of domination by religious extremists. It was Muslim women seeking relief from pressure to cover themselves whose complaints led ultimately to the French ban. Now the issue has cropped up again in the form of a call, endorsed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, to ban the total veiling of the face.
It all started in mid-June when André Gérin, the Communist mayor of Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon, who is also a member of the National Assembly, proposed a parliamentary commission to investigate the burqa (an outer garment covering a woman from head to toe) and the niqab (which veils the whole face except the eyes) as oppressive to women. His resolution stated:
A woman wearing a burqa or a niqab is in a state of unbearable isolation, exclusion, and humiliation. Her very existence is denied. The sight of these imprisoned women is intolerable when it comes to us from Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or other Arab countries. It is totally unacceptable on the soil of the French Republic.
A few days later, in a historic address to parliament, Sarkozy said the burqa is not "welcome in France." This "is not a religious issue," the president said, "but rather a question of freedom and of women's dignity."
Neither the burqa nor the niqab is common in France, but their precise incidence is unknown. According to Gérin, more than 100 women in Vénissieux (which has a population of 60,000) wear the burqa. About a dozen of the 200 or so marriages solemnized each year at the town hall are problematic for officials because the husband refuses to allow his wife to remove her covering. One local official recounted that a man covered his wife's picture on her ID because he did not want the clerk to see her face.
According to Abdelali Mamoun, an imam in Guyancourt, near Paris, the number of "ninja women"--the slang term for women in burqas or niqabs--is growing exponentially. Of the Islamists who are behind this trend he said, "Even if they are not jihadists, they hate the West, they spit on the kuffars, the infidels, but they take advantage of all the French social services instead of settling in a Muslim land as dictated by their doctrine. Their duplicity hurts French Muslims."
Not everyone agrees. A young Moroccan woman named Faiza, who had moved to France in 2000 with her new husband and who wears a niqab, became something of a celebrity in June 2008, when the authorities refused to grant her French citizenship. The reason: Her "radical practice of her religion" produces "behavior incompatible with the essential values of the French community, especially the principle of equality of the sexes." Interestingly, Faiza does not come from a highly religious family; she adopted an Islamist way of life only after arriving in France. Still, her husband couldn't see what was so shocking about the niqab. "We, too, are shocked by certain things," he said, "fags living together openly, couples that don't get married, half-naked women in the streets." He and Faiza tried to emigrate to their dream country, Saudi Arabia, but gave up in the face of bureaucratic complications. Still, they keep in touch with a Saudi "religious adviser" who gives them guidance for everyday life.
Fadela Amara, secretary of state for urban policies and former president of a feminist organization defending Muslim women, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither whores, nor submissives), has urged the banning of the burqa. Said Amara, herself a Muslim, "The burqa confiscates a woman's existence. By and large, those who wear it are victims. . . . I favor banning this coffin for women's basic liberties. . . . The burqa is proof of the presence of Muslim fundamentalists on our soil and of the politicization of Islam."
Some women on the left, whether Greens or Socialists, respond that a ban would solve nothing and would result in some Muslim women's being totally sequestered in their homes. To which Amara responds, "Freedom is not negotiable. I would ask those who oppose the proposal to try wearing a burqa." Because of her outspoken position, Amara has received death threats, and two men have been arrested.
Indeed, even conservative Muslims are not exempt from the wrath of the extremists. One imam close to the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the UOIF (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France), was recently assaulted by two radicals for failing to defend Muslims with sufficient vigor on a TV talk show. The imam had clearly stated he opposed banning the burqa and had sharply criticized secularism. But that was not enough for his assailants, who insisted he should have actually endorsed the burqa.
Of the major Muslim organizations in France, the UOIF comes closest to doing so: It acknowledges that some religious leaders call for the wearing of the burqa. While other groups note that such covering is not required by the Koran, none goes so far as to condemn the burqa. Interestingly, all the Muslim organizations agree that the state should not get involved in the issue. The president of the French Muslim Council said he was shocked by the debate, which he regarded as stigmatizing Islam. As for French Muslims generally, a large majority of them are secular and therefore are not represented by the organizations participating in the French Muslim Council. Most do not expect women to wear even the hijab, much less to cover their faces.
For now, the matter is in the hands of the 32-member parliamentary commission created by Gérin's resolution, which is due to report its findings on the burqa and the niqab in January 2010. It is surprising that the issue has generated so much controversy, considering that others in Europe have paved the way. In Holland, face coverings are forbidden in schools and public transportation; in Sweden, Italy, Luxembourg, and some Belgian cities, the burqa is banned.
The Arab media, especially the Saudi press, have provided obsessive daily coverage of these developments. Every commentator concludes that France is a dreadful, bigoted place. One column in Al Riyadh depicted France as a land of Crusaders propagating an ideology of racism and hatred of Islam and the Koran. To prove his point, the columnist noted that the French government had been harassing "its good citizen" Roger Garaudy, an infamous Holocaust denier who converted to Islam. The writer took comfort only in the thought that this France won't be around much longer, since it will have a Muslim majority by 2050.
Olivier Guitta is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant.