IN ABOUT six months, a cross-party French parliamentary committee of 32 MPs will prepare a report examining whether the wearing of the burqa (an outfit, usually black, that covers a woman's full body, including her face) in public represents a threat to French secularism. They'll also determine whether to ban it being worn in France.
The committee was formed after French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the French Parliament on June 22 and described the burqa as "a problem of liberty and women's dignity" and "not welcome in France".
Sarkozy further claimed that the burqa was not a religious symbol at all, but rather "a sign of subservience and debasement", which created "women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity".
Of course, even if Sarkozy regarded the burqa as a religious symbol, he might still ban it. In the past, he hasn't been averse to banning the open display of religious symbols in French state schools.
Sarkozy was originally behind the push to proscribe the hijab (headscarf) from state schools, only to subsequently oppose specific legislation, introduced in 2004, which saw the wearing of all religious symbols in state schools prohibited.
Many French, and indeed many Australians, find the various shades of religious head covering adopted by Muslim women somewhat troublesome. Women draped in black represent one of the most potent stereotypes of Islam in the West, one reinforced by media images. When one Sydney Muslim man called for polygamy to be legalised, the Herald Sun website carried a photo of two burqa-clad women crossing the street. The website of its Sydney equivalent regularly carries photos of burqa-clad women in any story even mildly related to Muslims. On August 8, 2007, in a story on an investigation into a refugee housing project run by a main Muslim body, The Daily Telegraph showed the image of the top half of a fully veiled woman's face.
It's unclear exactly what proportion of Muslim women wear any sort of head covering when in public, though anecdotal evidence suggests only a minority do. Among those who cover, the vast majority seem to follow the religious consensus and restrict themselves to merely covering all or part of their hair. This can take the form of a more fixed hijab (as commonly worn in the Arab world and South-East Asia) or a loose shawl draped over the head (common in Iran and South Asia).
The vast majority of Muslims in France are from North Africa where the face veil is rarely worn. This naturally raises the question: with such a tiny minority wearing such a veil, why is Sarkozy using his precious time talking about this issue?
Sarkozy's remarks are reminiscent of former prime minister John Howard's frequent references to alleged non-integration of Muslim Australians. Yet in one radio interview Howard declared 99.9 per cent of Muslims were perfectly integrated. I wondered at the time whether his repeated emphasis on the 0.01 per cent non-integrated was little more than an attempt to create an environment where the 99.9 per cent were made to feel uncomfortable.
No women in my family cover their hair. However, my maternal grandfather, who lectured at the relatively liberal Aligarh Muslim University in India, insisted the women of his household practise a form of traditional aristocratic seclusion known as purdah. Though associated with Indian Islamic culture, purdah was also practised in many upper-class north Indian Hindu and Sikh households.
It was common in those days for wealthy women to go out shopping while seated in a special palanquin (called a dholi). This was basically a large, comfortable, box-like structure with plenty of cushions for aristocratic women to laze on while their male servants (or even male relatives) would carry them. The curtains around the box had a screen through which the women could peek and decide which shop they would visit.
Women's quarters in 1950s Aligarh homes were places where women enjoyed themselves, freed of any domestic duties, their husbands or fathers employing servants to perform all cooking and other chores. Men were expected to lavish gifts on their female relatives (and in-laws) using the household income, which women were usually responsible for managing (I'm sure to their own advantage). Men were also expected to do all the shopping for food and other household needs. Women only shopped to buy clothes, jewellery and other luxury items for themselves.
Of course, the situation for the aristocratic Indian woman in purdah was a far cry from impoverished women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Purdah did not stop my mother from completing high school and a bachelor's degree. The idea of banning women from education or work would be anathema to most Muslims, including the one in four of South Asian heritage.
France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Western Europe.
By focusing on a tiny minority of Muslim women, Sarkozy risks alienating the majority of French Muslims, including those who agree with his basic proposition that the burqa is offensive and degrading to women.
Irfan Yusuf is author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist, published byAllen & Unwin.
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