The French Republic is not blessed or burdened with a First Amendment. So when President Nicolas Sarkozy recently suggested that France ban the wearing of the burqa in all public places, the Chamber of Deputies took it up.
Unlike the headscarf, which covers a woman's hair but leaves her face visible, the burqa is a head-to-toe covering that makes walking draperies of women. Some, like the chador worn in Afghanistan, feature a mesh covering for the face. The Saudi version usually sports a slit for the eyes. Here's an online catalogue's description of one: "Khimar and niqab set made of an all season, buttery soft georgette. Reaches to approximately knee level (depending upon your height) and provides full coverage. Arm openings about half-way down the khimar are a convenient feature with this style. Edges are embellished with matching satin trim. Imported from Saudi Arabia. Available in your choice of Navy Blue, Brown, or Saudi Black." Yes "Saudi black." In a country where summertime temperatures often reach 120 Fahrenheit, the geniuses designed a garment for women that is stifling and black.
In London, which has come to resemble Algiers more than New York, these walking shadows are everywhere. Even in summer, some women who wear the "Saudi black" burqa also wear black gloves and sunglasses over their facemasks. One would no more strike up a conversation with such a specter than with Darth Vader.
You needn't approve of the slatternly attire so often found on Western women to stoutly and angrily resist the encroachment of the burqa -- and everything it represents -- into Western life. Let's be clear. It took guts for Sarkozy to say what did. He called the burqa "a sign of subjugation ... of debasement." Al-Qaida, reliably enough, issued a fulminating statement: "We will not tolerate such provocations and injustices, and we will take our revenge from France ... by every means and wherever we can reach them."
Muslims agree that the faith requires "modest" dress on the part of women. Beyond that, things get disputatious. Some argue that the face must be veiled. Others deny it. Both cite Quranic authority. But there is no doubt that the vast majority of the world's Muslim women do not wear these personality-obliterating shrouds. The burqa's revival in some parts of the Muslim world (Iran, Egypt, Morocco, even Lebanon) is more of a political than a religious expression. Some women insist that they freely choose to swaddle themselves. But in many Muslim nations women are subjected to a variety of coercions, both cultural and political, to erase themselves in public. Also, there must be thousands of Muslim women who, by moving to Western Europe, thought they could shed the oppression of their home countries. Instead, they have found cringing European "multiculturalists" eager to excuse every Third World depredation -- from wife beating to polygamy to the burqa -- as a sign of their broadmindedness.
Europeans are not the only ones cringing. In his Cairo address, President Obama engaged in his by now famous false equivalence: "Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith ... Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism."
Since the president's speech predated Sarkozy's comments on the burqa, Obama must have been referring to France's 2004 decision to ban the headscarf (along with crucifixes and yarmulkes) in public offices and schools. Let's see, in Saudi Arabia it is illegal to build a church (to say nothing of a synagogue) or to carry a Christian Bible on your person. In most Muslim majority nations, alcohol is prohibited to everyone, not just to practicing Muslims. And little girls are subjected to genital mutilation and other forms of torture and abuse on a widespread basis. Well, President Obama explains, both sides need improvement.
The French approach would be constitutionally complicated in America. But as C.C. Colton observed, "The law allows what honor forbids." For all men and women who consider themselves enlightened, fighting off the burqa should be a matter of honor.