Yesterday, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said this:
The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.
Is there any secular liberal or feminist who, in their heart of hearts, does not believe this, and who doesn’t agree with Sarkozy that women swathed in black from head to toe are ‘prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity’ ?
If not, then what’s the problem, and why are the French president’s comments being reported as ‘controversial’?
Perhaps it's because he also said that the burqa ‘will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic’. In other words, he moved from declaring a perfectly reasonable point of view – to arguing that this opinion should be enforced by law.
My immediate response when I heard about Sarkozy's speech was a divided one. On the one hand, I thought this was yet another example of a rather absurd politician exceeding the bounds of his authority, and found it worrying that states might abrogate the power to decide what people could or couldn't wear. On the other hand, I found it refreshing to hear a political leader say out loud what most secular liberals think, but are usually afraid to declare in public for fear of upsetting fundamentalists, or (in the case of politicians) losing the votes of 'faith communities'.
Those who are tempted to condemn Sarkozy’s views as right-wing or 'Islamophobic' need to be aware of the context. According to the BBC, his remarks were a response ‘to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burqa in France.' Apparently Gerin believes that the burqa 'amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory'. And the French human rights minister, Reme Yede, who is herself a Muslim, has said she would be prepared to contemplate a ban 'if it was aimed at protecting women who wore a burqa against their will'.
What's that? Left-wingers and liberal Muslims taking a stand against religious fundamentalism and defending individual liberty and women's rights? They certainly do order things rather differently in France, don't they?