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

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, October 3, 2010; E05

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.

In a defense of the ban, French lawmaker Jean-François Copé wrote in the New York Times that covering one's face is "a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others." He was making the point that full participation in French culture requires face-to-face interaction. Public safety demands that we reveal our faces -- as on driver's licenses or in front of security cameras.

This is certainly a reasonable argument. But surely there can be some logistical accommodation for a DMV photo and other occasions when the face must be unveiled for identification purposes. As for security cameras, will banks and 7-Elevens ask customers to remove their baseball caps, sunglasses, hair extensions and false eyelashes -- and get their noses out of their BlackBerrys -- before a transaction can occur? Security cameras don't see some unvarnished truth. They see whatever people -- veiled or not -- choose to show them.

Copé also points out that day-to-day communication requires visual cues: a smile, a frown, an expression of confusion. But from telephones to e-mails, Facebook and Twitter, people regularly communicate and fully participate in society without ever having any personal encounters. If folks are willing to reveal intimate details about themselves to faceless individuals on the Internet, why should anyone be bothered by having a grocery store transaction with a veiled woman?

Facial expressions certainly offer clues to who we are, but clothes tell the rest of the nonverbal story in vivid color, strident patterns or conservative silhouettes. Clothes serve as declarations of unity (team jerseys help Little Leaguers bond); or can be a form of strident intimidation (Klu Klux Klan hoods); or admissions of powerlessness (prison jumpsuits).

A burqa offers only silence. Is there anything more maddening than trying to argue with or debate or understand someone who simply says nothing?

Clothes don't just tell us something about who we are as individuals, but also how we all fit together. Our individual attire doesn't exist in a vacuum but is part of an ever-changing, real-life costume drama.

The daily fashion show -- on K Street or Wall Street -- contributes to the flood of information that we process on a regular basis and that ultimately helps us sort out hierarchies and personalities. The burqa assigns a woman to a social tribe as surely as pearls and a crew-neck sweater stereotype another. But the burqa places a woman in the company of ciphers. She is a blank, an unknowable entity. Are there pearls behind the veil? Gold hoop earrings? Lip gloss or bright red lipstick? A marabou scarf, perhaps? If we don't know where she fits into the social diagram, our own position becomes clouded with confusion, even insecurity.

France's acclaimed fashion industry serves as an unparalleled aid in self-definition. The creativity that pours from this city is unmatched by either Milan or New York. In its fashion, Paris offers women a rich and dynamic gift. It provides them with a way to manage their sexuality, power and gender in the public sphere.

The burqa absolves a woman from having to do any of that. Instead, the onus falls on her neighbors, her fellow citizens. If she is lucky, they may correctly define her. But more than likely, they will get it dangerously wrong.

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