Invisible women: Contrary to popular perceptions, it's difficult to find a woman wearing the full niqab, or burqa, in France. Here's one hunted down in Britain, in 2006. Still, the French are inclined to ban the invisible garment. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Remarkable how a little Islamophobia can go a long way. Arab and Islamic regimes are brilliant at deflecting attention from home-grown ills and repressions by picking on something foreign. But so are enlightened Western regimes, France--self-anointed father, mother and holy spirit of Enlightenment-- chief among them.
First it was the French parliament, that women's rights backwater, that decided it was time to study whether Muslim women in France were denying themselves their rights by wearing the burqa (the full-body covering made less than famous by images from Afghanistan and The Kite Runner).
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president who likes his women as unveiled as possible, was quick to jump on the doff wagon. “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” he told an applauding session of parliament (in Versailles no less. “The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement – I want to say it solemnly: It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”
But how many women are these French eminences worried about, exactly?
Now we know: Exactly 367. That's right. In France, a country with a population of 61.5 million and a Cartesian delight for certain forms of precision, 367 women wear the burqa. We know this because French police investigated at the behest of the French government, and Le Monde, the French daily, got hold of the results.
"This number," Le Monde reports, "which doesn't presume to be exhaustive, is the result of observations across the country by teams of the DCRI," the Central Directory of Internal Intelligence (direction centrale du renseignement intérieur). There's more: Most of those who wear the burqa are younger than 30. Some 26% are French converts to Islam. The youngest girl known to be wearing it is 5 years old.
That's what the French parliament, the French president and, apparently, almost three quarters of the French public, would like to ban. (Don't get me wrong: I think wearing the burqa is demeaning, regressive, and anti-Islamic to boot. But legislating people's dress code is as insane and nonsensical as legislating hair color).
It seems to me the French have at least ninety-seven thousand eight hundred and fifty six better things to obsess about than what 367 women do or do not wear. Here are two of them: The French are getting fat. They're drinking more beer and less wine. And their culture is on the rocks: In France, the Wall Street Journal reports, "68% of those over 50 say their favorite drink is wine, while only 24% of those aged 14 to 29 gave that response; most French young people (29%) chose beer as their favorite drink." Which leads Jean-Pierre Maillard, a 68-year-old retired astronomer, to sniff: "Beer is a category of liquid with no culture."
Now there's something to get the French parliament, the president and the majority of French guzzlers all bubbly over. The burqa invasion can wait.
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