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Policing fashion in France and Saudi Arabia

Head Scarf

As a child living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was accustomed to seeing my mother wrapped in a black cloak whenever she ventured outside our compound walls. And when I came of age, I too had to drape myself in the abaya in public places. If we didn’t wear it, or didn’t wear it in the appropriate manner, the mutawa’a, or “clothing police,” as we jokingly called them, would stop us and demand that we cover up. The mutawa’a dutifully patrolled public spaces with an entourage of regular police who were armed with batons should anyone revolt.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced that there is no room for the full-face Islamic veil in his secular republic. He did so in the first presidential address before Parliament since Charles Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s in the 19th century, if that’s any indication of how seriously he takes the issue.

“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” Sarkozy said. “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.”

Sarkozy is currently introducing a bill that will be voted on in May which would completely bar Muslim women from wearing the veil in all public places. The French government claims that the ban would only affect  about 2,000 French women, so France’s fashion legislation can’t quite be compared to Saudi Arabia’s. Still, as someone who was once forced to dress in a manner inconsistent with my personal value system, I sympathize with these women, and struggle to accept that the world’s fashion capital would impose such a law in the name of women’s freedom.

When I was in Riyadh, I felt confined and restrained by the black abaya — literally and figuratively. I was forced by kingdom edict to dress in a way that left no room for me to express my beliefs in the public realm. I was just another nameless woman togged in black. How will those 2,000 French Muslim women feel when exposed like any other French woman? What do they think of Sarkozy’s assessment that wearing a burqa is an expression of repression rather than faith? And on a practical level, how will Sarkozy enforce this law? Should we expect to see the French equivalent of the mutawa’a wandering the streets sporting berets and guarded by an entourage of gendarmerie?

As Americans, it’s hard to imagine. The first amendment guarantees Americans the freedom of religion and expression. As President Barack Obama said last year regarding the burqa ban, “I will tell you that in the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”

Amen to that.

With the largest population of Muslims in Europe, religious dress has been a source of tension since 2004, when France passed legislation prohibiting French girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. PBS WIDE ANGLE’s film “Young, Muslim and French” examined this conflict in the town of Dammarie-les-Lys, a racially diverse, working-class community on the outskirts of Paris, where young Muslim women face a choice to obey the ban – or flout it.

Related story: An illustrated guide to Islamic veils

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  • FGutz

    I understand where Sarkozy is coming from, but forcing women is not the answer. Just by living in a free and open state, these women are exposed to an alternative. If they actually like their burqas and appreciate their symbolism interpreted from their religion, then by all means who is anyone to tell them what they can and can’t wear. If they don’t, they have the choice to not wear it.

    of course “choice” is easier said than done. What if a woman does not want to wear it but is afraid of removing it due to a controlling husband or family. Or what about the fear of being shunned by her own community. The choice not to wear it could mean she’s ostracized and left completely alone. She could have nowhere and no one to go to.

    Still, this is not something the French government should force people to do. Maybe the French govt should fund non-profit centers that help women who choose not to wear the burqas and have been pushed out of the community to find jobs and start new lives.

  • Martin

    The burqa can be used to conceal a suicide bomber. There are laws in NYS that prohibit being masked in public. Will DMV issue a drivers license to a masked person?

  • Rebecca

    Martin–I know of no laws against being masked in public, and a burqua is not a mask. You can see the person’s eyes, usually. And a burqa isn’t the only clothing that can hide weapons, by a long shot. tThere are lots of ways to hide a bomb or weapons and lots of ways to hide one’s face without drawing attention to yourself (shades, hat and neck scarf?). In addition the parts of the burqua that could hide a bomb (the long dress) are NOT the parts that france wants to ban. Just the headscarf. So security is not at issue here.
    It’s hard enough to decide how much skin can or ought to be exposed for everyone’s public comfort, without forcing people to show more skin than they want to. Especially when it’s a religious reason and not just style at question. I would be horrified if I HAD to wear a bikini everywhere I went. I would be even more horrified if my religious beliefs suggested that walking around in a bikini was sinful. So not only am I vulnerable and exposed but I’m sinning.

    Feminists (and I’m one) need to find a different way to empower muslim women than by forcing them to violate their religion. That’s the opposite of helping. That’s coercion.

  • Jerome Potts

    Rebecca, a burqa /is/ a mask, it is designed to conceal the wearer’s face. More so than a ski mask or a bandana, which are designed to /shield/ the face from the elements (but which, as we all know, are sometimes misused as a face-concealment device).

    If your spiritual beliefs are of the Abrahamic family of faiths, then yes, your walking around in a bikini is sinful, in that it is harmful to persons of the other gender (men), and that is harmful to you back (refs: The Gospel delivered in Arès, several instances in the Qur’an, and pbbly in the Old Testament too.)
    Now, how much should be covered (and this applies to men as well) depends largely on the place and the epoch ; it is largely cultural. I suppose that you can undress much more among the natives of the Amazon forest, or of New Guinea, before impressing anyone. We could try to define it as such : any state of un/dress which is likely to arouse, sexually, a sizeable proportion of persons of the opposite sex (doesn’t need to be a majority, in my opinion), is not to be practiced. That is, any dress that is immodest, or suggestive (even fully dressed !). Keep your goods to yourself and your spouse (be that your steady boyfriend, whatever : the one to whom you are true, your companion, your partner.).
    Back to the bikini, if you can make one which is not sexy (and i like to believe that is possible, a two-piece suit which minimizes the covering of body, but not of figure-enhancing shape), then go for it. You may even be able to wear it out on the street, away from the swimming spots.

    Other than that, i enjoyed your posting. Thanks.