French President Nicolas Sarkozy would like to ban the burqa in public places, stating that it’s “a problem of liberty and women’s dignity.” He also called the burqa “a sign of subservience and debasement.” There are two specific moments in Obama’s speech in Cairo, where he addresses women’s rights:
“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 cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”
And also this:
“I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”
France has a particular history amongst Black Americans (Baldwin, Shay Youngblood, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright) as being a place of racial harmony and equality, a bastion of safety, beauty and expression. The country can certainly be all of these things. It is also a place I would like to visit again.
But it is important to put things into perspective, that is, recognize political agitation masked as progressive behavior. A (very) short history of the Algerian War, subject to more than a century of colonialism, Algerians began anew their fight for independence during the 1950′s. While the UN considered Algerian liberation, the FLN, the major Muslim opposition party, instituted a seven day strike in solidarity. The strike was so effective, the French, out of frustration, retaliated with violence. So began eight years of of guerrilla warfare, and torture techniques implemented by the French which included rape and electric shock. (It is worth noting that the original colonization of Algeria included “mass rapes” a tactic which was considered “a science” of conquering Africa and went on to be used widely by other European nations.)
The FLN were in no way innocent victims of peaceful protest. Women unveiled themselves to appear European, to pass checkpoints and place bombs in public places. Others carried weapons underneath their burqas and shot at police officers. The louder the call for (Arab) independence grew, the more violent native, and non-native born Algerians became. The assertion of Arab identity was an affront to French superiority. Muslim born Algerians were denied French citizenship, even those who had served in the French military–sound familiar? Full citizenship was granted upon complete abnegation of Muslim identity.
Documented in both the film, The Battle of Algiers, and Frantz Fanon’s essay titled ”Algeria Unveiled” in the book A Dying Colonialism, Sarkozy’s demand encourages an abandonment of female Muslim identity. For those who choose to be covered, he is continuing France’s history of colonialism and persecution under the guise of feminism. As history indicates this only plants the seed for forceful opposition.