India, France and the Burqa Law

Georges Malbrunot writing at Le Figaro flags one of the hidden ironies of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s sudden preoccupation with burqas, as well as France’s approach to veils in general — namely, that Indian Sikhs might be affected by the laws, too, and this at a time when France is busy wooing India in a major way. India was the guest of honor at this year’s Bastille Day military parade, reflecting the importance of the French-Indian defense relationship (France is India’s third-largest arms supplier). And French nuclear giant Areva already has some bids in for civil nuclear reactors.

According to Malbrunot, the Indian side slipped a diplomatic memorandum to the effect that the Sikh turbans are not external religious symbols, but rather cultural emblems of male virility. I have no expertise on the subject to know whether that’s correct or not. But it signals the fact that India is willing to make an issue of any subsequent impact on Indian Sikhs living in France.

It also signals how problematic the burqa law promises to be, if it moves beyond the investigative phase. Would it only be illegal for women to wear the burqa? Or would men be subject to the law as well? Would ski masks be illegal, then, too? If the idea is to protect women from being forced to wear it by their husbands, what about women whose husbands force them to wear longer skirts or higher-cut blouses out of jealousy or religious reasons?

I see the merits of having outreach centers for any women who do feel they are being forced to wear the burqa at the risk of violence. But at that point, why stop at the burqa? The same centers should welcome any woman who feels she needs protection from an overbearing or threatening man. But then it would entail a meaningful political approach to the problem of gender-based violence, discrimination and inequality, similar to that of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as opposed to a grandstanding announcement that then fades into nothing.

Ah, well. That’s Sarkozy for you. Love him or hate him (and I come down somewhere in the middle), the guy never met a headline he didn’t like.