Mme Sarkozy is a supermodel: sometimes she is photographed wearing fashionable clothes and sometimes she wears barely anything. President Sarkozy is photographed in neither but professes to be an expert on what not to wear: secular clothing is so in this season but sectarian clothing is out. Problem is, in France it’s out for good and the fashion police are more than figurative.
The burka is a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement”, according to the French President in a speech to both houses of parliament. But would its abolition prevent subservience to a predetermined dress code or create a new one at the whim of the French Government?
Sarkozy’s speech was no attack on one set of values but worse, the shaping of another set – “our values” – which he did not define. He does not need to, using rhetoric alone he has created the idea of an ideal French citizen. As a result, thousands of veiled French citizens who earned legal protection have now earned the legislator’s scorn. President Sarkozy did not merely attack oppression, he encouraged it.
The issue of religious dress is not like the “Anglo-Saxon economic model”, which Sarkozy delights in deriding. The burka is not American unilateralism, which France opposes. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Fashion” was never the cry of those at the Bastille and for good reason. Uncovered faces are a right but they should always be a choice – legislation would restrict choice not encourage it. All the while, as the world’s oldest problem – religion – rattles legislators, the world’s oldest trade continues unabashed: I speak of prostitution.
And yet I know of no Sarkozy speech about prostitution, the widespread secular subjugation of women for profit. The turning of a human into a commodity. Which is worse, masking a body or stripping away a person’s humanity until they represent a sexual service alone? Often, dress is a choice but according to The Poppy Project 9 out of 10 prostitutes do not want to be so (if you click on one link on this blog, click on that one).
Perhaps popular opinion explains why we focus on the burkha: prostitution is an often demanded service and for many an unknown problem. The burka is an immediate and obvious sign of difference and an unpopular divider of society. Yet it represents someone’s beliefs, their choices and their self-image.
So I end with some questions I am unqualified to answer. Is it government’s place to dictate personal choice, image, identity, beliefs and dress sense? Surely sexual subjugation is far more obvious yet so obviously ignored? Why does prostitution continue unabashed and Islam cause such concern? One is a religion, the other is revolting. Secular governments only have a role in the regulation of one.
PS. President Obama answered my question about the role of government before I even thought to ask it. “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising 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.” Merci beaucoup, monsieur.
This comment was made in Obama’s speech to Cairo last week. The BBC analysis is excellent but you can judge for yourself if you’ve got a spare 50 minutes or so: