Truth is a political construction. Last week, two women were fined for wearing burqas in a suburb of Paris. This was the first application of a controversial law passed in France forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public. Compulsory unveiling in France creates a narrative of a homogeneous French identity. In an age of mass immigration and turmoil between Islam and the West, the veil functions as a synecdoche for Muslim dissonance. Cultural battles are often fought through the form of the female body, though the conflict is much deeper than a thin layer of fabric across the face. Women are traditionally the mothers, home-keepers, and face of moral society, and therefore visually represent national ideals. A cultural battle is being fought through the body of the Muslim French woman, using her image to project political truth.
The right wing political pursuits in France have encroached on women’s right to freely practice their religion. While France claims to be in favor of women’s rights and freedoms, a woman’s right to identify with her religion, a precious freedom, is now forbidden. The choice to wear a headscarf should be personal and not legal. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab believe that Islam liberates and empowers them, while the image of the veil challenges the Western notion of these words.
This ban is accompanied by a great ignorance that will not be recognized until the controversy is over. This shrouding of the truth must be dispelled in the name of human rights. Seeing a woman fully covered from head to toe can be discomforting. From a Western perspective the covering of ones face can be interpreted as a refusal to exist, an erasure from society, an equivalent to silence. Muslim women cover their face in order to be modest and diminish their publicly exposed sexuality, but when out of context as in France the veil intensifies sexuality in its excessiveness. It is conspicuous, and being so visible calls more attention to Muslim women rather than less. There is mystery and fear of what is under the veil, and this ban is an attempt to control women, more so than the veil is misconstrued to do so itself. Save for extreme circumstances in conservative Muslim countries, women choose to wear their head coverings and are not required to do so.
The only obligatory dress code for Muslims according to the Koran is to dress modestly. The Koran actually says in Surah XXIV Light “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only what which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosom” It goes on to describe the close relations with whom the woman can share her
adornments. There are no specifics about the hijab or burqa. There is no sketch or diagram. Covering the head is a cultural and personal choice in order to identify with faith. Muslim women wear the hijab to feel connected with their faith and with their community, as well as to distinguish themselves from Western traditions. Men are [i]not limited in their choices. This tradition is not distinctly Islamic. There are Hasidic Jews, as well as Amish men and woman who dress in a distinctive conservative style as well. A headscarf can even be as secular as a fashion statement as seen above on the lovely Grace Kelly! France especially recognizes the power of clothes, where being fashionable and beautiful is an expression of patriotism.
Despite these truths, it is difficult to know a person without seeing their face. However, there is a difference between the burqa, which covers the entirety of the face, and the hijab, which leaves the face exposed. The Muslim women in France who choose to wear the full burqa are a vast minority: about 3 thousand out of a country of 62 billion. France, the most secular country in Europe, practices a strict separation of church and state. So why should the government ban the religious choice of a small selection of their citizens?
The projected truth of what it is to be French was discussed in an official national debate on French identity led by President Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s attempt to define the national essence encourages a false ideal that all citizens must comply with the same set of values. Hannah Arendt also sees truth as something that applies to all men, a universal fact. However, the French government is trying to enforce a truth of the French image, while discounting the realistic diversity in their population.
According to the French government, the veil undermines national unity and threatens community. The French Right sites the preservation of frenchness as its primary objection to the veil. The veil has also become an issue of National Security. Muslim women must be totally visible in public. It is not safe to drive with vision obstructed by the veil. The tradeoff of these precautions is encroachment on the freedom of religion. Moreover, Muslim women have expressed the willingness to show their faces when legally necessary as in court, or at the bank.
The subject of women’s body as a form of political debate is not unprecedented. Catholic missionaries attempting to convert and assimilate Native American women cut off their long dark braids. Mini skirts in the late 60’s were measured with a ruler in schools for proper length. My mother was sent home from higschool in Austin, Texas for having yarn shoelaces that dragged on the ground. While the French claim to be protecting the equality and dignity of women, they are in fact disrespecting women’s right to choose their own religious practice.
Kenza Drider, a conservative Muslim French woman, announced her candidacy for President the same day the women were fined for wearing their veils in a town hall. She proposes to serve all women who are the subject of political discrimination, and though she has little chance to win the election she brings up the excellent point: How does controlling what women wear protect their rights?
When I was in the West Bank for three weeks I was asked to cover my hair, which I found unpleasant. Covering my latest haircut or dye job: both of which have the power to transform and reinvent self-image, felt oppressive. I wore a scarf to and from the school where I taught and quickly tore it off the moment I entered my classroom. It is part of Western culture to celebrate the beauty of the female body, which consequently means to expose it. This is something I believe in personally, and support the celebration of the female body. However, my mind was opened when my students told me why they love their hijabs, and choose to start wearing them much earlier than they needed to. Generally girls adorn themselves with hijabs when they begin menstruating. They said it makes them feel like more of a woman, and they are proud to feel that way. I had never thought of it like that, but now see that this choice is strongly cultural and connects the fashionable young ladies with their community as well as their religion. The choice is not unlike my own to begin wearing a bra and shaving my legs during those same formative years.
The choice to wear a hijab ties a young woman to their families as a representative symbol of societal values. This is not in accordance with the Western idolization of individualism, and therefore an essential difference between our cultures. By dictating how women can dress, France is dismissing differences in culture that it should tolerate rather than control.
France’s burqa ban oppresses women by banning an essential part of their religious and cultural heritage. The ultimate right for any individual, man or woman, is choice. France’s nationalist battle of the veil prohibits this right. French Muslim women should not have to choose between their religion and their country because their country doesn’t view their choices as French. Does the narrative projected by the French government ring true, or is a woman’s right to choose the universal truth? Though the collective nationalist brainwashing can be compelling, in the end there can only be one truth. Either France is right and the burqa condemns the countries sense of self, as well as oppresses women, or Muslim women who freely choose to wear their burqas are the more free and liberated citizens of France. The ban exemplifies the manipulation of truth for a political purpose, using the woman’s body as an illustrative tool for change.
 Iranian Painter: Afshin Pirhashemi
 Jananne Al-Ani, Untitled, 1996
 Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief 1995
 President Sarkozy
 Kenza Drider announcing her candidacy
 My English Class, Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, West Bank
 Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe