Hands Off the Hijab

Instead of banning the burqa, the French president—and Obama—should let Muslim women do what they’re doing in Iran: Debate the issue for themselves, says Dana Goldstein.

Carsten Koall / Getty Images; Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

The French president’s decision to ban the burqa is a rash act at a time when diplomacy with the Middle East requires more delicacy than ever. If he—and Obama—really want to promote democracy abroad, they should let Muslim women do what they’ve been doing in Iran: Debate the hijab and the burqa for themselves.

When President Obama chose, in his June 4 Middle East policy speech from Cairo, to defend Muslim women’s “choice” to wear the veil, he didn’t know that, just two weeks later, the streets of Iran would erupt in protests. He didn’t know that a veiled 26-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, would become the international face of those protests. And though many Muslim women in Iran and across the world don the hijab with pride, Obama may not have known that the Iranian reform movement would be led by women frustrated with the myriad instances of gender discrimination—written into Iran’s legal code—that forced veiling represents. As Iranian sociologist Fatemeh Sadeghi wrote in a widely circulated 2008 essay, “Why We Say No to Forced Hijab,” the veil has “nothing to do with morality and religion. It is all about power.”

Obama has chosen to stay largely quiet on the specific grievances of Iranian reformers, giving them the space they need to define their own movement; Sarkozy, meanwhile, has placed himself in the eye of the storm.

To his credit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to get that. But there were complex politics at play in Sarko’s choice to deliver an unusual address to parliament on Monday, announcing that full-body burqas, which also completely obscure a woman’s face, are “not welcome” in France. With his approval ratings down to George W. Bush-level depths (just 32 percent) and European politics shifting to the anti-immigrant right in the wake of this month’s continent-wide elections, the French president is confronting, head-on, the culture of the most religious of France’s 5 million-strong Muslim population.

Developments in Iran, where illegally unveiled women have been protesting in the streets alongside men, have given Sarkozy some cover to do so, even though his own cabinet is divided on the issue. In the speech, he backed the idea of a parliamentary commission to consider whether to ban the burqa outright. “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” he said. “That is not the idea that the French Republic has of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.”

It is chafing to hear Sarkozy— not exactly known as a feminist—assert that women who wear a burqa have “no identity” and are not social beings. No item of clothing can negate an individual’s core humanity. And from an American perspective, it seems almost fascistic to outlaw a garment or impede an individual’s religious practice, even a practice as foreign-seeming and anti-egalitarian as the burqa. Yet France, which has no blanket freedom of expression statute like our First Amendment, already bans headscarves in its schools. It is that law that Obama obliquely referred to in his Cairo speech when he said, “The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.”

Yet Sarkozy’s hard-line stance on the burqa is meaningful less for what it says about the differences between French and American attitudes toward religious minorities and more as evidence of an emerging distinction between the American president’s foreign-policy instincts and that of his French counterpart. When the two leaders met in April and again in early June, they professed to share a common, diplomacy-focused approach to dealing with the Middle East. But the situation in Iran has put a wedge between them. Obama has chosen to stay largely quiet on the specific grievances of Iranian reformers, giving them the space they need to define their own movement; Sarkozy, meanwhile, has placed himself in the eye of the storm, using the burqa issue to court controversy at home and abroad just as a delicate diplomatic situation boils over.

While many feminists would, in the future, like President Obama to steer clear of statements in support of veiling, Sarkozy’s brashness on the burqa is also ill-advised. When it comes to hijab, there is no consensus in the Muslim world, even among those who could broadly be labeled as “pro-democratic.” In the streets of Tehran, some women protesters wear a conservative, tight headscarf, as Neda did; others push their veils so far back on their heads that they are clearly defying the spirit of Iran’s “modesty” laws. Some have even rejected the veil entirely, taking to the streets in flagrant disregard for hijab.

In Obama’s Cairo speech, he focused on the veil because it gave him an opportunity to appeal to Muslim moderates, even at the expense of a Western ally—and of Muslim women who reject hijab. On Monday, Sarkozy singled out the burqa as a way to appeal to French conservatives. But if both leaders know what’s right for the women of Iran, they will recede into the background and allow them to speak for themselves, about hijab and every other discriminatory law they live under. That is the true way to empower women, regardless of what they’re wearing

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at The American Prospect. Her writing has also appeared in Slate, BusinessWeek, and The New Republic.