Sarkozy mis-understood in veiled comments on burka?

By Lily Hodges on July 5, 2009

PARIS (Herald de Paris) – A friend of mine traveled to Morocco, and when she entered a shop to get a haircut, she befriended a woman wearing a veil around her head. The two started with small talk and eventually turned to discussing America.

A few days later, my friend ran into the lady in her hotel lobby, but was surprised to see she wasn’t wearing a veil. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you at first. Last time I saw you, you were wearing a veil.”

The lady smiled and replied, “I was having a bad hair day.”

In the first presidential address to the French parliament in over a century, President Nicholas Sarkozy took some time to discuss the role of the burka on the grand stage.  Addressing attending members of parliament in the grand chateau at Versailles, a venue fitting for a man plagued by the Napoleonic complex, Sarkozy clearly stated his view.

“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting,” said Le Petit Prince, “Cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French Republic has of woman’s dignity.”  The French ideal of female dignity being, of course, the plunging neckline and the pencil skirt, non?

The burka, traditional and/or required, veiled dress for women in many Muslim countries, was initially intended to represent modesty, chastity, and innocence.  Instead, in many parts of the world it has come to represent female repression.

This is not the first time that France has dealt with the wearing of veils politically. In 2004, the French government banned girls from wearing veils in state schools, through a law enforcing the separation of church and state.

This opened up partisan debates in government, in the streets of Paris, and throughout the rest of Europe. However, the discussion of the veil and the role of women in Islamic societies has engaged both Western and Eastern cultures since colonial times.

As Leila Ahmed, a noted American-Egyptian scholar, explained in Discourse of the Veil, in British colonized Egypt, the veil allowed the British to find a moral ground for casting the Egyptians as inferior. Lead in part by consul-general Cromer, the British began a campaign to de-veil the Muslim women.

Ironically, what seems to many, both then and now, as a morally correct undertaking, becomes confused once it is found that Cromer, the champion of the unveiling of Egyptian women was, in England, founding member and sometime president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Soon enough, the veiling of woman had little to do with the veil itself. The veil and the role of women became a medium, for both the colonizers and the colonized, to express their political, social or cultural views.

Veiling was, and arguably still is, manipulated by Western eyes as the most visible marker of the “differentness” and repression of Islamic societies, manipulative because it is used to cast Islamic societies as inferior.

It can be argued that Sarkozy, aware of the still growing tensions between Muslim immigrants and French natives, is further using the veil, specifically the burka, for political gains. Undoubtedly, the veil is still highly and arguably disproportionally symbolic.

Almost a century after Egypt gained independence, the veil is still a problematic symbol used for political debate over religion and culture. When former Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s daughter, who wears a veil, had a wedding. “It was a big social event, with the prime minister of Greece turning up as the guest of honour.

“But Turkey’s secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, sent his regrets. Too many headscarves”(BBC Chris Morris)

The topic of women in Islam is still highly symbolic, and the women play an iconic role. Why is it that the veil is the first thing to be noticed, and why are Islamic women so regularly analyzed?

The drive behind Sarkozy’s statement is the call for the creation of committees to assess the spread of the veil throughout France, and the extent to which Muslim women wear the burka voluntarily or involuntarily.

With this in mind, there is hope that this controversial topic will be treated thoroughly and respectfully. “We must not fight the wrong battle,” Sarkozy said. “In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions.” The right words from a President whose country has 5 million Muslims and painful memories from its colonizing past.

To his defense, Sarkozy is not promoting an extreme measure. He is specifically advocating the removal of the most excessive form of the veil, the burka. Internationally, the burka is a shocking symbol of Islam, most popularly translated as a form of submission and repression.

In opposition to Sarkozy’s statement, Mohammed Moussaoui, who heads the French Council for the Muslim Religion, remarked of his speech, “To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatizing Islam and the Muslims of France.”

And so the back and forth political, religious, and moral battles continues without a clear end in sight. Perhaps a sole truth stemming from the debates around the burka and the veil, is that it has come to represent much more than the woman who wears it, that it is like a road-block to fully understanding women in Islam.

Women have at times complained that there are more pressing matters to fix than their ability to wear a veil. For those women themselves, the veil often does not necessarily hold such significance.


Comments
Moroccan Patriot July 5, 2009

Sarkozy is a Political Hack who is trying to divert attention from the disaster his Presidency has created for the people of France, by trying to get racists to focus on yet another attack on Islam.

Sarkozy, the Pole, who claims to be French made his intentions very clear when he committed French troops to NATO in their war on Islam at the behest of big oil interests.

Sarkozy should not be taken seriously because he is after all an Alcoholic shell of a man.

Karen Lohn September 1, 2010

i am requesting permission to use the image of the woman in the burka in a book that I am writing entitled Peace Fibres: Stitching a Soulful World. In it, I enlist fibre work as metaphor and manifestation of harmonious relationship to self, others, and the larger worrld. I would use this image in a chapter on identity in which I discuss the wearing of the burka.
May I use the image? I would, of course, cite your website and the photographer, if you supply that information.
Thank you for considering my request. I look forward to your response.
Respectfully,
Karen Lohn

Jes Alexander September 1, 2010

The photo did not originate with us, and as such, we can not grant its use. I’ll check with the appropriate folks here and see if we can get you the proper contact.

Karen Lohn October 1, 2010

Dear Jes,
Thanks so much for your response. I will appreciate any link that you can provide.

Sincerely,
Karen

Leave a comment