This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
The French haven’t had such a to-do about fabric since the advent of the miniskirt.
But the current controversy gripping France – whether or not to ban the burqa worn by some conservative Muslim women – has rien to do with couture and everything to do with the tricky dilemma of balancing religious rights in a secular society.
The issue has created interesting common ground between the right and left. Some on the right see the burqa as a gauche symbol of a brand of radical Islam whose followers set themselves apart from the wider French society and its values. And some on the left see the burqa, and the slightly less concealing niqab (the woman’s eyes are not covered), as a sign of degradation and inégalité.
The furor has gotten to the point that a parliamentary commission will meet to determine whether the burqa should be forbidden.
Given the level of concern, one might think that burqa-wearing women were taking over the rues de Paris and storming the 21st-century version of the Bastille. Mais non. According to intelligence reports, only 367 women in France go full burqa.
So what’s more disturbing: That there’s so much concern over such a limited problem or that intelligence agents are actually keeping track of how many women wear burqas? And since the women’s faces aren’t visible, how do the counters know they’re not counting the same women more than once? There might be only 10 burqa wearers who just get around a lot.
Not that the United States is impervious to its own flare-ups of absurdity. In 2006, a Pierce County Superior Court judge ejected a Muslim woman from his courtroom for refusing to take off her headscarf. And a Muslim woman is suing a Michigan judge for ordering her to remove her headscarf in his courtroom.
But for the most part, Americans tend to look at religious-related apparel – everything from yarmulkes to turbans – as something between the wearers and their deity. It’s an attitude undoubtedly rooted in our reverence for the First Amendment.
With luck, the French parliamentary committee studying the burqa ban will come out on the side of tolerance, not xenophobia. After all, it has to realize that telling a woman she can’t wear something will only make her more résolu to wear it.