French President Nicholas Sarkozy, aka the husband of Carla Bruni, recently proposed a ban on the burqa, a garment worn by Muslim women, saying that the garment reduced them to servitude and undermined their dignity. In a speech to the French Parliament, the first by a president since the 19th century, Mr. Sarkozy likened the burqa to a prison and said “That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity”. BBC
This radical and provocative proposal comes at a time when Europe is struggling to deal with new demographics and cultural diversity. This proposal has re-launched debates about how France, and Europe in general, would deal with the new cultural trends that large scale Muslim migration to Europe entails. France has previously banned sikh turbans and headscarves from schools. BBC
The key question here are the rights of immigrant women in the French state. The proposal is full of rhetoric about freedom and dignity of women in the face of what Mr. Sarkozy perceives to be an oppressive culture. Western feminists have pointed out the pitfalls that liberal attitudes towards immigrant culture entail for women, most famously Susanne Muller Okin in her essay ‘Is Multiculturalism bad for women?’-
It is by no means clear, then, from a feminist point of view, that minority group rights are “part of the solution.” They may well exacerbate the problem. In the case of a more patriarchal minority culture in the context of a less patriarchal majority culture, no argument can be made on the basis of self-respect or freedom that the female members of the culture have a clear interest in its preservation. Indeed, they may be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture) or, preferably, to be encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women—at least to the degree to which this is upheld in the majority culture
Okin wants the state to intervne in the domestic sphere of immigrant lives, saying that opressive practices usually take place behind closed doors. While I do understand and relate with the Okins concern, I do think that there is a difference between choice and coercion. What I find unaccpetable is Sarkozy’s condescension when he assumes that everyone wearing the burqa is coerced into it.