An educated guess is that there are no more than a few thousand women in France who wear the burqa or niqab, a loose gown running from head to foot that covers the face with either an opening for the eyes or a veil to hide the face. One can go for months in France without seeing a woman in a burqa.
Covering one’s face from the view of others is a way of protecting one’s anonymity. The right to anonymity, if there is such a right, is closely linked to the right of privacy that is guaranteed by the French civil code and by the European Convention on Human Rights. On public streets or in an outdoor market, one’s anonymity enjoys legal protection from photographers. Other than permitting identification, there would appear to be no legitimate public interest in compelling people to expose their faces.
Dress codes do exist in France as elsewhere, but their enforcement is through social custom rather than law. There are no obligatory vestimentary rules in France outside of prisons and, to a limited extent, schools.
What is odd is the sudden French zeal for conformity, for no country has shown more respect than France for the uninhibited expression of individuality. It runs like a musical theme from François Villon in the 15th century to Georges Brassens in the 20th.
Yet on nothing more than the quicksand of intuition President Sarkozy concluded that the burqa symbolizes women’s submission. France’s highest court in administrative matters, the Council of State, reached the same conclusion just a year ago when it denied citizenship to a woman who has lived in France for eight years, speaks perfect French, has a French husband and four children born in France, on the sole ground that she wears a burqa. The court, like the president, felt that wearing a burqa conflicts with the principle of the equality of the sexes.
Yet there exists no legal inferiority. A woman wearing a burqa enjoys the same legal rights as any other person in France, including the right to divorce. If there is no legal inferiority, perhaps the submission invoked by the president and the court is a psychological submission.
If so, they have rushed in where angels fear to tread. An adolescent girl who starts to smoke submits to psychological peer pressure. So too those who sport baggy trousers or skin tight jeans, wear tattoos or go in for piercing, face-lifting, breast enhancement and a myriad of other practices just as offensive to some as the burqa is to others.
Is the working wife who does the laundry submitting psychologically to a feminine stereotype incompatible with the French principle of gender equality invoked by Mr. Sarkozy and the French supreme court? Can government intrude that deeply into how men and women interact and organize their lives?
The analogy that the president seemed to have in mind is that of a sect whose members are so brainwashed that they have lost all power to free themselves from exploitation. But there is no evidence that women in France who wear burqas are victims of a sect or are exploited.
Many wish to see the burqa as a badge of feminine oppression. They seem to feel that by removing the dress the purported oppression will vanish and the person’s true voice will be found. Yet no evidence shows that women in France who wear burqas are forced to wear them, or have low self-esteem, or are unable to exercise their legal rights.
The political clamor to ban the burqa is not an evidence-based policy. It is a misguided effort to enhance the status of women grounded in speculation about what a woman hidden in a burqa must feel. Yet whatever she feels will certainly not be changed by a law telling her what not to wear. And were there a law, how would it be enforced? Would there be a fine for wearing a burqa? Would there be clothes police? The whole notion is reminiscent of the prohibitions applied to women in Afghanistan before the Taliban lost power.
While the burqa has become a useful political distraction, it could be turned into a symbol of a state that welcomes diversity. It could exemplify a state that knows that its role is to promote equality, protect diversity and forbid discrimination.
Mr. Sarkozy has done more to enhance that role than any of his predecessors, but on the issue of the burqa he has gone seriously astray.
A state that proclaims democratic values cannot justify telling its residents what to wear or not to wear any more than it can justify telling them what to think or what to say or to which god to pray when no harm comes from the behavior, save the shock felt by those whose views and customs differ.
Until evidence is forthcoming that wearing a burqa poses a clear and present danger, President Sarkozy is tilting a lance not at the devil but at an old windmill. The devil does not wear burqa.