The burqa in France: Removing the veil without facing society's shortcomings

Who's there? France's burqa ban will go into effect next year if the law passes constitutional muster. Covering one's face is "a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others," says one lawmaker.
Who's there? France's burqa ban will go into effect next year if the law passes constitutional muster. Covering one's face is "a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others," says one lawmaker. (Luke Macgregor - Reuters)

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, October 3, 2010

PARIS

The deeply conservative and austere burqa has been banned here, and if the law passes constitutional muster, it will go into effect next year. Muslim women -- whether residents or tourists -- will not be allowed to cover their faces in the public sphere, even if that is their preference. There will also be special penalties for anyone who tries to force a veil upon an unwilling woman or minor.

Meanwhile, the spring 2011 runway shows are being staged all over town, and Paris is pleasantly abuzz and unabashedly proud of its top spot in the fashion hierarchy. Trend hunters are snarling traffic with their chauffeured Mercedeses. Women who want to show themselves off, decorate their decolletage and paint their faces in hues of pink are holding sway. It seems as if every amateur photographer has come out hoping to capture the models on the runways, the editors in their irrational heels and the starlets who have come to lend their glittering personas to the entire affair.

If there is one thing these two disparate events have in common, it is that they both serve as proof that the French understand, in a profound way, the power of clothes.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy deemed the burqa disruptive and destructive, and the ban passed with near unanimity in the French Senate last month. There's been debate in the European media -- as well as in the United States -- over whether this law discriminates against Muslims and is likely to stir up anti-Islam paranoia, or whether it will serve as salvation to secular culture and an open, democratic society.

Teasing out whether the burqa is a form of oppression or a symbol of righteous modesty depends upon whom one asks. But in a fashion-loving culture where audiences applaud runway models dressed in hot pants and transparent dresses, one can reasonably say that a burqa conflicts with the ideas of clothes as tools for self-definition and female sexuality as a form of personal power.

Fashion, style and beauty have long been integral in defining this city's relationship with the United States. American women still tend to believe that French women are fashion savants -- particularly when in possession of an Hermès scarf. And while "French Women Don't Get Fat" was merely another diet book espousing moderation and exercise, American women glommed onto it as though it were a holy writ.

Public appearance means a great deal in this city. And the ability and willingness of people to think about fashion in highly personal and expressive ways is why so many avant-garde designers gravitate here. They know that what they do will not be immediately dismissed as folderol. Their attempts to upend cultural expectations by reshaping a sleeve or altering a neckline will be received as a serious form of provocation.

In Paris, style and beauty are also tinged with patriotism. French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy -- a former mannequin, no less -- celebrates Christian Dior by wearing it at virtually every public appearance. The symbol of the republic, Marianne, has been modeled after actresses Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, as well as runway walkers Inès de la Fressange and Laetitia Casta. The female face -- not merely its youth, sex appeal or glamour but also its character -- is admired in a way that it is not in the United States.

The burqa -- this shroud of anonymity that hides the face of beauty and wholly obliterates any hint of aesthetic self-expression -- chips away at the image that France has so carefully etched for the world to see.


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