In battle of the burqa, Obama and Sarkozy differ

During speech Monday, Sarkozy suggested that the traditional female Islamic dress was a form of enslavement. But Obama backed freedom of religious expression in his Cairo speech.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters
A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks in an old bazaar in Kabul, in this March 2009 file photo.

In the battle of the burqa, the two Western presidents from two international defenders of freedom, France and America, are finding no common ground.

On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy forcefully condemned the burqa, the traditional female dress for some segments of Islam that covers a woman from head to toe, as a form of enslavement. And he vowed to ban it from the French republic.

Mr. Sarkozy's position, offered in a speech to Parliament, followed by less than a month American President Obama's opposite take on the subject of covering by Muslim women.

In his Cairo speech to the Muslim world earlier this month, Mr. Obama called on Western countries "to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim women should wear," saying such action constituted "hostility" towards religion clothed in "the pretense of liberalism."

To seal the Franco-American fashion debate, the issue subsequently divided the two leaders – both male, it should be noted – when they met in Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.

Having suffered the lightning wrath of some French women's groups for his Cairo comments, Obama reiterated: "Our basic attitude [in America] is that we're not going to tell people what to wear."

Sarkozy's response was also based on a defense of freedom, though from a different perspective. "A young woman can wear a head scarf," he said, "provided that's a decision she made freely and had not been forced on her by her family or entourage."

The difference broadly comes down to one of "freedom to" versus "freedom from." Obama is defending a woman's right to dress as she chooses, especially when it comes to expressing her religious belief. Sarkozy, too, is motivated by a vision of a woman's right, but in his case it's a freedom from coercion by those who would impose a symbol of second-class status.

Sarkozy's position is grounded in the vision of a fiercely secular French republic that respects the freedom of religion, but which discourages expressions of religious difference in public settings like schools and other public institutions.

Obama's, on the other hand, follows the traditional American respect for different cultural communities and religions under the broad umbrella of universal freedoms.

In the US, Obama faces criticism from some Muslim women, like Karima Bennoune, an Algerian-American teaching at University of Michigan Law School, who sees Obama's words as accommodating the "law of the Brothers" – family members and community fundamentalists who would impose a symbol of subservience on sisters and other women.

Sarkozy faces periodic public protests from French Muslim women who demand the right to wear the religious symbols they choose – and who deride what they see as their French sisters' attention to fashion (and skimpy dress) as its own form of enslavement.

For some US observers, Obama's stand on the scarf and the burqa has simply been too one-sided. In his Cairo speech, Obama "talked about the right of Muslim women to wear the veil, particularly in the West," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "What he didn't talk about was their right not to wear the veil."

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