PARIS, France — In his 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned no fewer than three times the issue of the headscarf, or hijab. Each time, his purpose was to stress "the right of women and girls to wear the hijab" — but never their right not to wear it.
Needless to say, Obama’s stance did not gain him popularity among a large portion of Muslim women who had been angling to be free of the hijab for quite some time.
In truth, many Muslim women seek relief from the pressure to cover themselves. It is these sentiments that led to France's initial law in 2004 that banned all exterior religious signs, not just Muslim ones, from public schools. And it is these sentiments that have pushed France to currently consider the partial burqa ban in public spaces — and rightfully so.
The ban on the burqa — the outer garment that covers a woman from head to toe — denounces a practice that has nothing to do with religion, but rather is a way for fanatical men to have dominion over women. If passed, France's partial burqa ban will protect a woman's right to freedom and dignity. She will no longer be obliged to cover herself, but can do so in some instances if she chooses to. (Here's an opposing viewpoint on why France is wrong to consider the burqa ban.)
French president Nicolas Sarkozy has made his stance crystal clear, saying the burqa is not “welcome in France” and that it “is not a religious issue but rather a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.”
Fadela Amara, his secretary of state for urban policies and herself a Muslim, echoed his opinion: "The burqa confiscates a woman's existence. By and large, those who wear it are victims. I favor banning this coffin for women's basic liberties. The burqa is proof of the presence of Muslim fundamentalists on our soil and of the politicization of Islam."
Abdelali Mamoun, an imam in Guyancourt, near Paris, also concurs, saying that the Islamists are behind this trend. Of them he said, "Even if they are not jihadists, they hate the West, they spit on the kuffars, the infidels, but they take advantage of all the French social services."
France has come under fire for being intolerant of Muslims — interestingly, by both radical Muslims and American pundits. But in actuality, Europe and a number of Muslim countries are already moving in France’s direction.
For example, in the Netherlands, a law bans the burqa in schools and public transportation; in Sweden, Italy, Luxembourg and some Belgian cities, the burqa is theoretically banned altogether and Egypt’s religious Al-Azhar University has just banned the niqab (full-face veil) stating that it has nothing to do with the Koran. Gamal al-Banna, the Egyptian brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, goes further: "Neither the Koran, nor the hadith require women to wear a headscarf."
Tunisia is another Muslim country actively going after the hijab. In 2006, President Ben Ali, feeling the growing influence of Islamists in Tunisian society through the rapid increase of hijabs, reactivated a 1981 decree banning the wearing of the hijab in government offices, schools, universities, and public places in general.
Islamists will stop at nothing to veil women. Sometimes they try to buy resistance. Some French Muslim families, for instance, are paid 500 euros (about $680) per quarter by extremist Muslim organizations just to have their daughters wear the hijab.
But what Islamists use most is intimidation. A survey conducted in France in May 2003 found that 77 percent of girls wearing the hijab said they did so because of physical threats from Islamist groups. A series in the newspaper Liberation in 2003 documented how Muslim women and girls in France who refuse to wear the hijab are insulted, rejected and often physically threatened by Muslim males. Muslim women who try to rebel are considered "whores" and treated as outcasts.
In fact, around the globe millions of women are forced to wear the veil for fear of physical retribution. And the fear is well-founded. Every year hundreds of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone are killed, have acid thrown in their faces or are otherwise maimed by male fanatics for the simple reason that they were not covered.
For Islamists, veiling women is a way to control society, hence their ferocious determination to do so. Not coincidentally, it is one of the only issues on which Sunni and Shia extremists agree. It’s not by chance that the spreading of the veil really took off in 1979 after Iran’s Islamic regime came to power and Saudi Arabia’s radicalization wave following the foiled coup.
Some Shiite militias in Iraq have actually started forcing women — Muslim or not — to wear the veil or face the consequences. Interestingly, Al Qaeda through its Islamic Maghreb branch also joined the debate by accusing France of “religious terrorism” and threatening terror attacks in France and/or against French interests.
Last but not least, the burqa is also potentially a security hazard because it prevents others from being able to identify the person wearing it. For instance, there have been numerous cases of terrorists blowing themselves up in Iraq and Afghanistan while wearing a burqa, and some others have tried to escape while under the cloak of one.
The burqa has nothing to do with freedom of religion but with basic human rights. Europe appears to understand this. Let's hope America will one day, too.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com.