PARIS — Many scholars of Islam will tell you that nothing in the Koran requires a Muslim woman to cover her face — that its rules for proper Islamic dress are ambiguous and limited. “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty,” it says. It adds, “They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their ornaments.”
Even Khadija, the first wife of the prophet Muhammad and a successful businesswoman, who surely guarded her modesty, is believed to have bared her face in public. Historically, in the Middle East, it was often tribal Bedouin women who covered their faces, sometimes with decorative masklike veils dripping with coins that announced the value of their bank accounts.
Westerners became sensitive to the image of faceless Muslim women largely through the use of the burqa by the Taliban to oppress women in Afghanistan. That garment functions like a body tent, with an eye screen to allow some vision. Years before it became an issue in the United States, French feminists fulminated against the burqa, and later against other radical interpretations of Islam in Afghanistan, including public stoning for adultery, the demolition of Buddhist shrines and the banning of music. And now, the French government has officially banned the wearing of full-face veils.
But the face-covering veils in France are different. Even though many here mistakenly call it a burqa, the garment worn by women here is a niqab, an improvised cover in black with no religious or traditional significance beyond what a wearer or observer gives it. Some of these women may be rebels, demanding control over their bodies and recognition within a Western culture whose social values they reject. Some may have been forced into covering their faces by domineering men; others may believe they are better Muslims because they hide their faces in public. Some are French converts from Christianity.
France’s ideal of a secularized republic theoretically leaves it blind to color, ethnicity and religion, and makes everyone equal under the law; there is no census or reliable poll data on why these women veil, or even how many do. (The government’s best estimate is 2,000 at most.)
So why all the fuss, on both sides of this question, about a tiny minority of women who wear odd-looking dress in a country that is the world’s creative headquarters for odd-looking fashion? One explanation is cultural. In French culture, the eyes are supposed to meet in public, to invite a conversation or just to exchange a visual greeting with a stranger. Among Muslims, the eyes of men and women are not supposed to meet, even by chance, and especially not in public or between strangers.
“Le regard” — the look exchanged by two people — is a classic component of French literature, developed centuries ago in the love poetry of the troubadours. Especially in Paris, a stare in public is not usually taken as a sign of rudeness, and can be accepted as a warm compliment. You never walk alone here, it seems. “The visual marketplace of seduction” is how Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut define public space in their 1977 book, “The New Love Disorder.”
In another book, “Galanterie Française,” Claude Habib, a specialist in 18th-century literature, argues that the centuries-old French tradition of gallantry “presupposes a visibility of the feminine” and “a joy of being visible — the very one that certain young Muslim girls cannot or do not want to show.”
French tradition has also long encouraged mixing of the sexes in social situations. “The veil,” Ms. Habib continues, “interrupts the circulation of coquetry and of paying homage, in declaring that there is another possible way for the sexes to coexist: strict separation.”
A more familiar explanation for French antagonism to the facial veil is historical and political: the deep-rooted French fear, resentment and rejection of the “other” — the immigrant, the invader, the potential terrorist or abuser of human rights who eats, drinks, prays and dresses differently, and refuses to assimilate in the French way. Some of the French, particularly on the far right, still believe that France’s colonial “civilizing mission” was a noble one, and that the people of former colonies, including the Arabs of North Africa, have clung to backward ways that they are now exporting to France. “The veil’s presence reminds French people daily that that mission failed,” said Rebecca Ruquist, an American scholar of race and religion in modern France. “It has been seen as a sartorial rejection of the values of the French republic.”
Source : The New York Times