The [face-covering] veil is not a sign of religion, but a sign of subservience. We cannot accept to have in our country, women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity—French President Nicolas Sarkozy
The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality—U.S. President Barack Obama
The above quotes clearly illustrate two diametrically opposed approaches towards certain Muslim attire, which completely obscures the face of the woman wearing it—Sarkozy attacking it and Obama encouraging it.
France, the country with the largest Muslim population in Europe, is wrestling with two basic questions, namely: 1) Does a government have the right to dictate how its citizens are to dress? and 2) How does a country deal with an immigrant group that rejects its national values and refuses to assimilate into society?
This week the French government denied citizenship to a man who forced his French wife to wear a head-to-toe veil, deeming the attire to be an attack on that country’s national values of secularism and gender equality.
The man, a Moroccan citizen who is a member of a hard-line Islamic missionary group called the Tabligh, defiantly accused the French government of intolerance of Islam:
My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.
Depriving one’s wife of the freedom to leave the house with her face uncovered goes against French traditions and cultural norms. And because reducing the status of women to second-class citizens is anathema to French culture, Sarkozy has drawn a line in the sand.
Barack Obama’s approach, on the other hand, while appearing to be more tolerant on the surface, may have a more tragic, unintended consequence for women: under the guise of “protect[ing] the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it,” as the president said, this approach may actually have the opposite result in all but guaranteeing women’s continued subservience in certain elements of Muslim society.
Sometimes, a government is required to take a moral stand.
Sarkozy and Obama have both taken one. As to which one will be more successful in guaranteeing the rights of women, only time will tell.