Muslim women locked in a tyrannical chokehold by Muslim men can rest easy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to rescue us.
In a breathtaking moment of hubris, Sarkozy in a speech to France's Parliament said there is no place for the burqa in France.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement -- I want to say it solemnly. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
For the record, I wear the abaya and niqab in Saudi Arabia. I wear the abaya and niqab because it's my choice. Contrary to popular Western myth, the abaya is not forced on women in Saudi Arabia. As an Islamic country, women are only required to cover the details of their body. While I am living abroad I wear a different style and color hijab that is conducive to the environment I live in. I choose not to wear the common black abaya in the United Kingdom for my own personal reasons that are nobody's business but my own. But if I ever decide to put on the abaya and niqab the way I do in Saudi Arabia that also is my own business.
Sarkozy is echoing what many French lawmakers have been demanding the past few years. They want to create a commission to examine the possibility of a full-scale burqa ban. The issue is divisive as some lawmakers say it will create tensions between France's Muslim population of 5 million people and non-Muslims.
Sarkozy provides us with yet another example of how Western nations define human rights and the oppression of women. It's assumed that if a woman is wearing the burqa, it is forced on her. Because, really, who in their right mind would wear such a thing?
But in Saudi culture the abaya is part of our identity, an identity that most of us happily embrace. Young Saudi girls often emulate their mothers and older sisters by wearing the abaya before they even hit puberty. This differs little from young Western girls who wear their mothers' clothing and high heels. Although there are certainly cases in which women are forced to wear the burqa or abaya, the majority do so because they want to. The French government will be faced with the task of how to determine who embraces the burqa and who is forced to wear one. It appears, however, that France is willing to consider the easy route by simply banning it all together rather than bother itself with considering what Muslim women want.
There seems to be the misconception that wearing the burqa excludes women from participating in French society. Somehow the burqa prevents women from asking the clerk at the grocery store what's on sale, having parent-teacher conferences at their kid's school, or running for municipal office.
What the French government is demanding is that Muslim women become active members of society under the government's rules. Rules that apparently don't apply to Hasidic Jews or Catholic school girls forced to wear pleated skirts and knee-high socks. These forms of cultural and religious dress are acceptable by Western standards, yet Muslims are excluded from the club.
By imposing a dress code the government sets the parameters of social etiquette. In effect, by mandating a dress code the French government excludes many Muslim women from society. Muslim women who believe it's their right to wear the burqa simply will not leave their homes. They will not engage the grocer and their kid's teacher. They will not run for public office. The oppression will not come from their culture or religion, but the French Republic.
What is lost in the hubbub of public debate over this cockamamie burqa ban proposal is that we allow our civil liberties to slowly erode. In 2004, the hijab, along with other religious symbols, were banned in France's public institutions. Today the French take another step by considering banning yet another piece of clothing. Tomorrow? Will the French see the Islamic requirement of praying five times a day a sign of oppression and implement a ban? Will it decide that Hasidic Jewish women's scarves and conservative dress required by Jewish law is oppressive? Where do they draw the line between oppression and freedom?
The Muslim community has always viewed France as friendly and tolerant. Now France's Muslims find themselves more marginalized than ever as the West continues to determine what is best for them. France should know better. There are many French citizens alive today who remember when one segment of French society was once ostracized, had its religious and cultural symbols stolen or destroyed, denied the right to worship or wear clothing that identified their religion, and ultimately put to death. It seems that France is on the path to revisit that part of their history.