The French National Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to ban burqas, with 335 in favor of the law and only one against it. This decision is in line with the international consensus that instead of what they do, what they say, or what they believe, women should be judged for how they look.
If the Senate and Constitutional Council approve the ban, it will go into effect in the fall.
Most French people oppose the burqa, a garment worn by conservative Muslim women that covers the entire body, even the face. They consider it an affront to their culture.
“Covering the face is undignified for a woman,” said Manon Defer between drags of her lipstick-stained cigarette. She was walking down the Champs-Élysées in Paris with her friend Blanche Pelletier when she was interviewed for this story.
Pelletier, a human resources manager for a major corporation, agreed. “It makes me uncomfortable when a woman applies for a job wearing a burqa,” she said. “I can’t see her skin that way. Even if she meets the qualifications, and I do decide to hire her, I have to let her go if I find out she’s black.”
A group of men at a café on the Rue de Rivoli felt similarly.
“Muslims smell funny,” said Marc Aguillard, “and they talk all, like, dirka dirka.”
“Those people aren’t welcome in France,” added Severin Garnier. “We don’t like them because they’re different than us.”
Gervais Boucher, who was sitting across the table from them, nearly knocked his coffee over in his eagerness to join the conversation. “You know what would be funny?” he said. “If we took the Muslims to a camp in the country, but when they went to take a shower there, instead of water, poison gas came out.”
They all had a good laugh at that, and agreed that if anyone wanted to do such a thing, France certainly wouldn’t stand in the way.
Supporters of a burqa ban say it would allow Muslim women the freedom to fully participate in French society, and that if women have the right to show their faces, they must exercise that right. Other countries have similar measures, like the gun ownership requirement for becoming an American citizen, or the joint travelers must smoke at customs upon arrival at Amsterdam’s Skopje Airport.
Opponents of the ban say a tolerant society should allow people to dress as they choose. In response to criticism from human rights groups like Amnesty International, President Sarkozy sought to reassure French Muslims with a televised address.
“You have nothing to fear from the government,” he said while Nazi sympathizer Liliane Bettencourt lit his cigar with a hundred Euro note. “Just wear the right clothes or we’ll throw you in – Mon Dieu!” His shirt caught fire.
One reason cited for the ban is that women who wear burqas don’t always do so willingly. While some Muslim women choose to wear burqas, others are forced to wear them by their husbands or fathers. The law would be harsher for men who make women wear burqas against their will than for the women who wear them, with penalties being doubled if the victim is a child. This line of reasoning has been adopted by a group of young boys who want suits and ties banned as well.
A related problem is domestic abuse, the physical scars of which burqas are often used to hide. Abuse is a major factor within Europe’s immigrant populations, and governments have been quick to respond in a sensitive and appropriate manner. In reaction to the female genital mutilation practiced by recent arrivals from north Africa, for example, Great Britain now prohibits covering of the vagina in public so that any signs of mistreatment can be open to view.
But most Africans don’t participate in that barbaric practice. To the contrary, some tribes have started protecting women in the same way Europe does. In Namibia, Himba tribespeople are demanding that women traveling with Western tour groups remove their shirts to reveal any evidence of beatings to the breasts or torso.
Shortly before greeting a busload of European tourists, Chief Baingana was adamant on the subject. “We cannot stand idly by,” he said, “while every week in Europe another woman is killed by her husband.” His assertion is backed up by data from the French women’s rights group SOS Femmes Accueil.
Citing advocacy groups like GoTopless.org, Baingana hopes also to liberate white women from Western patriarchal oppression and make them more comfortable with their bodies.
“Do you see any Himba women covering their breasts?” he said. “Of course not. It would be unnatural. The white women only do so because their men have trained them to, to keep them under control, to keep other white men from looking at them because those men have not learned to control their urges.”
French tourist Blaise Canion was indignant after her interaction with the Himba, who, after making her bare her breasts, familiarized her with local custom by smearing rancid butter on them.
“I respect their way of life,” she complained to her tour operator, on the verge of tears. “Why can’t they do the same for me?”