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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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