It may be hard for an American to fathom – this idea that government would dictate a religious dress code.
That goes too far in so many ways. It violates the separation of church and state. It suppresses religious freedom. And in a broader sense, it squelches identity – for isn't fashion (religious or not) a means of self-expression?
The American view has its sympathizers in other countries, but also its strenuous opponents. In France, for example, President Nicolas Sarkozy this week endorsed the idea of a ban on the burqa. This is the conservative Islamic head-to-toe covering with mesh or a slit at the face that is worn by some Muslim women in public. (In the Persian Gulf states it's known as a niqab.)
Mr. Sarkozy called the burqa "subservience," not religious garb. "In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity." A parliamentary panel will study whether a ban is warranted.
In Iran, the Islamic government takes just the opposite view. Women must be mostly covered – hair, neck, and loose-fitting clothes on the body – as a sign of religious morality. A "spring thaw" from 1997 to 2005 under a reformist president allowed a liberal interpretation of the dress code, but the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, revved up the morality police to once again enforce it.
Still, many women in Iran have chafed against the cover mandate – as they have against many other restrictions on women. They came out in full force to protest the June 12 reelection of Mr. Ahmadinejad, widely seen as fraudulent.
In France, Muslims – even moderate ones – are also unhappy with Mr. Sarkozy's antiburqa stance. They say it threatens religious freedom.
The fact that certain publics in both countries are not happy with dictates on religious dress – dictates that have opposite aims – says quite simply that government has no business deciding what adults should wear.
And it indicates that perhaps those who would make "covering" decisions for others are perhaps using this issue to cover their own fears.
In Iran, it must certainly be the fear that allowing the choice not to cover will corrupt religious practice – and by extension, Iran's theocracy will fall. The first fear is groundless. Look at Pakistan. It has no religious police, yet it has no shortage of devout Muslims. Iran's second fear is not so groundless. Again, look at Pakistan. The Taliban, in areas it controls, has tried to enforce conservative dress and dictate lifestyle. Now the people reject them.
Might not French politicians – for Sarkozy is hardly alone in his views – be fearful of Muslim-otherness and its influence on French society? France has the largest Muslim population in Europe and has failed at integrating this group. In 2004, France banned head scarves along with other "ostentatious" religious symbols of dress in public schools. It was paraded as an example of French secularism, of equal treatment for all – but in reality it primarily affected Muslims.
A ban on burqas would not even pertain to a public institution – only being out in public. Focusing on an issue that admittedly affects a minority of Muslims in France (only about 100,000 women wear burqas out of a total Muslim population of about 5 million) is a clever way for a politician to play to an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant mood and distract from a painful recession.
Other European leaders have refused to be cowed by the anti-Muslim backlash. Britain sees no need to ban the burqa or the head scarf. Its democracy, its "equality" is not in danger for lack of laws on religious dress. Meanwhile, Belgians recently bucked the anti-Muslim mood by electing a politician who wears a head scarf in Parliament.
The fears in France and Iran can't be swept under a rug, but neither can they be papered over with a ban. Banning something as individually sensitive as religious garb leaves the "banees" feeling repressed – look at Turkey (unhappiness over a constitutional ban on the head scarf in public institutions) or at Saudi Arabia (unhappiness over women's restrictive dress and other rules).
When President Obama visited Normandy earlier this month, he was asked about his views on the French ban on head scarves. He reiterated what he had said in his speech in Cairo, that "in the United States our basic attitude is that we're not going to tell people what to wear."
Such an attitude could go a long way in healing this issue.