Burqa Battle: Rooting for Sarkozy to Win

Every religious group has customs that should be respected among those of that faith, but the public is under no obligation to embrace these customs, let alone acquiesce to them.
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Two-thirds of French people want a law limiting the use of face-covering Islamic veils such as the niqab and the burqa, with only a minority backing the government's plan for a complete ban, a poll showed Saturday. President Nicolas Sarkozy's government is expected to present a bill in May on banning full veils from the public sphere, against the advice of legal experts who recommend a milder rule focusing on state institutions. - Most French want burqa law, but not total ban


Edouard Manet would have been stunned. Gustave Courbet outraged.

Picasso's women wouldn't have been the same in a fundamentalist age that bent to the burqa and the niqab instead of respecting the beauty of women in a society that put religious symbols where they belong, outside the public sphere.

It's part of what makes up the heart of France, this unbridled lust for life, including the female image, her soul, her liberated nature uncovered.

I can even write the next chapter if the French bend. Hear the uproar if the burqa, niqab and the chador become common coverings for women seen often in France. The coming battles will be about piety and insulting those who don't approve of 21st century liberated women. Pitting the morality police against the culture of France, it will come to no good.

The other issue is the dangers it can pose in modern society, which is why one woman was fined for wearing the Islamic veil while driving in France.

Covering women in the name of religious piety is anathema to the heart of France's libidinous boisterousness, which is rooted in the rejection of publicly religious declarations regardless of religion.

As reports have stated, a full ban on the burqa and niqab may run into constitutional challenges, but it's worth the fight.

Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after a cabinet meeting Wednesday that the president decided the government should submit a bill to Parliament in May on an overall ban on such veils "in all public places." That ups the stakes in Mr. Sarkozy's push against veils such as the burqa, the niqab and the chador. Some in his own party have bristled at a full-out ban, and France's highest administrative body has questioned whether it would be constitutional. - France Moves Ahead With Islamic-Veil Ban

France is very different from America when it comes to women in many ways. The French respect and celebrate women of a certain age as we say here. In America, the exquisite and supremely talented actor Catherine Deneuve would never have enjoyed such longevity. In France, women may talk about how old they are, but they are less obsessed that their worth is tied to their youth. In America, women are not only apologetic about their age, many are obsessed with pronouncing themselves too old, as if they're embarrassed by life's arc; either that or they go to death defying lengths to cover their inevitable physical maturity. In America, we have politicians trying to undo women's rights, including Democrats, with no American Sarkozy who's willing to stand up and fight in sight. Republicans talk about sending female politicians "back to the kitchen."

Needless to say, even as France banned religious scarves and overtly ostentatious religious symbols in schools in 2004, as the Wall Street Journal and others have reported, some who want to ban the burqa and other religious coverings do so out of racism and to marginalize Muslim customs. That's not what this is about at all, but as several people have told me who live in France, there is an automatic reflex on the left to want to push back against conservative forces who are for banning the burqa for reasons that are pure racism. As much as conservatives hate all things French, even pommes frites, it takes pretzel logic to get behind the ban without exposing the obvious racism against Muslims many conservatives feel. Franklin Graham, the honorary chairman for the "National Day of Prayer Task Force," recently called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."

The cultural integrity of any nation should never be bent for any group, whether it's Muslims in France or religious fundamentalists in this country who want to weave religion into our political lives against the founding ideas of this nation.

Should Pres. Sarkozy bow to religious pressure so that France changes to accommodate one religion and their customs when it confronts and would change the historic rejection of religious symbols of this country?

For outsiders who love this country, the spirit of France seems antithetical to the burqa and niqab.

Some argue banning the burqa and niqab impinges on women's freedom and they should be able to choose to wear it or not. But let's remember that conservative religions, from Muslims to Southern Baptists to the Catholic church, are inherently misogynistic, separating women out because they are seen as less worthy, denying them priestly powers, which basically relegates women to second among men, even in God's eyes. This is not 21st century thinking that should be supported in the larger public arena. Every religious group has customs that should be respected among those of that faith, but the public is under no obligation to embrace these customs, let alone acquiesce to them or even respect them if they discriminate through gender, or if the religious tenets will bring a chill across a country's public landscape.

I'm not French (some French on my mother's side hardly counts), but I've had the pleasure of traveling to this stunningly liberated nation, which I've grown to love deeply, beginning many years ago when I first saw French art. Few things would be more jolting than to see it change on the wings of any conservative religion. The French fought off religious conservatives before, previously represented by the Catholic Church; as one of the people I reached out to on the subject living in France reminded me (via email), jogging my memory of laicite as it is labeled (coming from the word laity, those not Catholic). This is the overt and direct public stance that the state is separate always from religion, which is the only way free thought can thrive, with no specific religion supported by the state, which also applies to adopting atheism. Unlike America's constitutional First Amendment, the French constitution states outright that France is a secular republic.

The burqa battle is just the latest foray on this front. The French should keep fighting; for the burqa, niqab and the chador are ostentatious religious symbols that have no place on the French landscape.

However, it is the conservative intent which is meant to manifest a cultural move rightwards that is the most worth fighting, especially for women, against whom most of the damage is meant to be done.

Vive le Sarkozy. I hope he wins.

Taylor Marsh is a political analyst out of Washington, D.C.

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