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Is freedom visible?

September 12, 2009

by Julienne

The practice of head coverings for Muslim women has been a long-debated issue in global media.  With recent international incidents, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments about the burka, it seems that this argument is far from over.

There are several types of coverings, ranging from a simple head scarf to the full-draping burka.  To those unfamiliar with such practices, the burka, typically black, might seem cumbersome and intimidating.  As such, Sarkozy proclaimed on June 23 that such clothing was “not welcome” in his nation, citing that the wearers are imprisoned.  He went on to say:

Prenzlauer Berg Synagogue

Do outward appearance and personal freedom have any connection? The French Parliament ruled in 1989 that the wearing of any religious insignia in state schools was forbidden if its aim was proselytism. A similar ruling in 1994 banned headscarves, Jewish kippahs, Christian crucifixes, and Sikh turbans.

For further reading:
“Anorexia” for skin? Some Jewish women are choosing to wear burka:

Muslim women, by Muslim women: Muslim women who do not wear burka need to be a part of the debate in France:

“We cannot accept in our country women trapped behind a fence, cut off from social life, deprived of any identity.  This is not the idea that we have of a woman’s dignity.”

To me, Sarkozy’s issue lies in his paradigm.  In other words, he approaches the issue of covering from a European perspective.  He seems to say that a woman’s freedom is dependent upon her outward appearance.  But how free are the French really?

In 2004, BBC reported that the French Parliament banned the wearing of headscarves in public schools.  Unfortunately, though, those were not the only religious garb to be excommunicated from French educational life.  In the same law, Jewish kippahs, Christian crucifixes, and Sikh turbans were also banned.  The French aversion to symbols is far-reaching.  In 1989, it was ruled that the wearing of any religious insignia in state schools was forbidden if its aim was proselytism.

By passing these laws, the French admit that Muslims are not the only people to have visible religious symbols.  Why, then, focus only on these women?  What about Christian women who do not cut their hair?  Has Sarkozy forgotten the Jewish women who cover themselves modestly?  Using the French logic, the government should also rule in favor of barber shops and shorter skirts – for equity’s sake, of course.

I ask then, is freedom an invisible mindset or an outward expression?  Does government have the authority to dictate such an attitude?  I am reminded of the words of Buddhist revivalist, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: “Freedom of mind is real freedom.  A person, whose mind is not free though he not be in chains, is a slave…”

Who, then, can decide if the burka is a prison?  Only the women inside it, of course.  Only they know if their minds are chained, or if they are empowered and sovereign.  Regardless, one need not look far to find support or criticism of the burka.  I have heard many opinions, none of which have brought me any closer to the truth.

However, I can say that I am confident many women wear such coverings out of personal choice.  Conversely, I am also sure that many women who adorn themselves as such were never given the luxury of option.  That is to say that religion has spectrums (denominations) whose variables are immeasurable.

I do not write in attempt to validate any religious expression.  I only aim to remind the reader that things are not always as they seem.  To articulate my position, I might retract my previous criticism of the President and evaluate this from a, seemingly, American perspective.

I take issue with Sarkozy’s remarks on the basis of personal choice.  We must remember that there is a vast difference between fundamentalism and separate living.  Everyday, and in every nation, millions of people are living a separated life.  Whether they do not eat beef, squash spiders, or drink alcohol, they make life choices based on their value set.  If these choices, like the burka, do not negatively impact others, where is the harm?

In reviewing this situation, I do not see a nation enjoying freedom in their secularist state.  What I really see in France is a country so consumed with sameness that they are forced to create a genetically modified system in the greenhouse of parliamentary decree.  Sarkozy is actually the one imprisoned, and he is so by his obsession with uniformity.

In their attempt to completely liberate a nation, French lawmakers are now bound.   Sarkozy is not merely against the burka.  (If only it were that easy.)  In reality, he is mandating his own set of values.  It might even be argued that he is simply too afraid of the unknown.

Nevertheless, the question is not whether Sarkozy’s beliefs are right or wrong.  As a democracy, the French government must aim to be a reflection of the values of the population.  Therefore, the central issue is whether or not the people of France believe that the current governmental trend is representative of the populace as a whole.  The people must decide whether they find freedom to be a visible characteristic, or an internal state of being.


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