Standing in the passport line at the Gare du Nord in Paris before boarding the Eurostar to London, I become aware of anxious rustling behind me. A family party includes a woman wearing the niqab, the tent-like veil worn in Arabic and Gulf countries that covers the face and head and has a slit for the eyes. I am relieved the woman is behind me in the queue. While she may have no problem passing the police booth marking the exit from France, the UK border control, which has its own booth just a few feet away (an arrangement that saves travelers from having to show their passports on arriving in London), tends to be more exacting. There may be further blockages at the X-ray machines, where passengers are expected to remove their outer garments. In Western Europe, such Muslim attire has long raised understandable—if awkward—security concerns; but in France, it has also provoked a much broader controversy about the nature of French society.
The French debate over the “burqa” has been sharpened by the new report of an all-party parliamentary commission. The panel’s findings encompass both the burqa—the head-to-toe garment with a screen for the eyes worn by Afghan women, hardly ever seen in France—and the niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes. (In France the term burqa is used generically to encompass the niqab and all other veils such as the North African haik that conceal the wearer’s identity.) While falling short of advocating an outright ban, the commission suggested that restrictions on the burqa should be imposed in public places such as hospitals, schools, post offices, banks and on public transport where identification is necessary. According to the commission it should be left to the Council of State, France’s highest judicial authority and court of last resort, to decide if legislation on banning full veiling is necessary.
The issue is highly political, and yet the discussion is curiously theoretical, even scholastic. Only a tiny proportion of France’s five million Muslims wear the full veil—fewer than 2,000 women according to the Interior Ministry. In Paris such veils are rarely, if ever seen, except in the vicinity of expensive hotels and shopping malls that attract rich tourists from the Gulf during the summer months. In late January the only niqabs to be seen in Paris were being worn by demonstrators from the immigrant feminist advocacy group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (“neither whores nor submissives”) who favor a ban and were protesting at the Socialist Party’s decision to abstain from voting on the commission’s report.
According to Jean Bauberot, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Paris, the spread of the full veil in the banlieus where most Muslims live is apocryphal. “There are no statistics on the wearing of the burqa,” he told a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that “for a calm, rational debate we need knowledge.” Yet an Ipsos poll finds that a clear majority of voters—57 percent against 37 percent—favors a law banning the burqa in France.
The majority in favor of a ban, including Ni Putes, insist that full veils encourage the formation of a separate Muslim and communal identity that challenges the very basis of French laïcité. The same reasoning underpins the ban on headscarves and other conspicuous signs of religious affiliation such as large crosses and yarmulkes, that has already been imposed in French high schools. Secularism, the English equivalent of laïcité, appears too weak to convey the resonances acquired from two centuries of republican history, seen as the struggle for reason and enlightenment pitted against the forces of darkness and religious obscurantism. Legislators and intellectuals interviewed by the weekly Le Point are virtually unanimous condemning the burqa. André Gerin, the communist deputy who presided over the commission sees it as a symbol of the “black tide of communitarianism”: the visible sign of a deep fundamentalist tendency he describes as talibans à la française.
For Guy Carcassonne, a professor of law, the case against the burqa rests on broad grounds that the law must forbid actions that are harmful to society: shouldn’t such a deliberate act of self exclusion be considered socially harmful? Every society, he says, depends on a concept of public order that reflects the customs of the day: today’s social norms dictate that one does not hide one’s face.
Jacques-Alain Miller, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, argues that covering one’s face goes way beyond protecting women from male desire: it amounts to a symbolic castration of male onlookers. Unlike nuns, whose cloistered lives were governed by ecclesiastical authority, women who wear niqabs in public are displaying rather than hiding themselves. They are “exhibiting the costume of medusa,” he says, making their husbands into a jealous God. Hence, for Miller, veil-wearing divides society from the family, when the family should instead be the foundation of broader social interaction.
Unlike most French politicians, however, who see it somewhat simplistically as a fundamental threat to the republic’s values, Miller recognizes the veil’s rich ambiguities—despite his own objections to it. Everyone, he suggests, interprets it according to their own system of values: submission, modesty, an affront to female rights, an inalienable right, a matter of religious belief, of self-segregation, even aggression. It is a snare for illusions that, left to themselves, will soon be co-opted and domesticated by the fashion industry, as punk has been appropriated and tamed. John Galliano will have burqas in his next collection—and we already have an imitation Barbie doll in full veil.
Meanwhile, although niqabs are much more evident in London than in Paris, the issue has not provoked much concern in Britain. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is on record as calling the veil a “mark of separation,” but very few would regard outlawing a piece of clothing that a small number of women regard as essential to their religious observance as being compatible with “freedom and democracy.” In a recent BBC television debate, a headscarf-wearing (but facially exposed) student from Oxford, who heads that university’s Islamic Society, dismissed arguments that Muslims were smuggling Islamic law into Britain. Her defense of the full veil relied exclusively on the principle of a person’s right to choose her own attire. (In the US, wearing a headscarf, whether in public or in school, would be seen as protected under freedom of religion, and restrictions on the full veil have until now been limited to identification photos.)
Conspicuously absent from the debate, in France and in Britain, is any consideration of the Islamic veil’s historic dimensions. It seems clear from earliest sources that the first Muslim women went about unveiled; and some of Muhammad’s female followers fought courageously alongside his men. The custom of veiling appears to have developed later as a reaction to the institution of slavery. As the Islamic state expanded, a growing flood of slaves were captured as booty, and sold in the slave markets. Many of these were young women who were incorporated into Muslim households as concubines. Slave women were required to expose the head, arms, legs, and upper parts of the chest, and to enhance their value slave merchants ensured that they were well versed in singing, dancing, music and poetry—necessary skills for the arts of seduction and love.
In the face of this challenge the supposedly respectable women retreated into the sanctity of the home. By the twelfth century Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149-1209), one of the most renowned and influential of Quranic commentators was arguing that the freeborn believing woman must be fully covered. “A free woman’s entire body is a shameful nakedness in itself,” he wrote. Razi’s reasoning was commercial: Quranic writings on modesty did not apply to slaves because they were items of property whose purchase or sale required “an investigative and careful inspection.”
The long-term social consequences are hardly surprising, given that in parts of the Muslim world slavery was only formally abolished in the middle of the last century. Veiling and sexual apartheid, though not universal, became the hallmark of urban Muslim societies from Indonesia to Morocco. With colonial administrators regarding female seclusion as barriers to the “civilizing mission” of empire, wearing the veil inevitably became a form of resistance to foreign conquest. In the West, its symbolic charge is far from being depleted. It may justly be regarded as a symbol of patriarchal oppression, but like punk and other urban styles, it can also mean a deliberate rejection of the current cultural norms imposed on women of every age, shape, appearance and size.