In France today, veils reveal more than they hide.
Laurence Rossignol — the Socialist government's minister for family, children, and women's rights — recently criticized the fashion designer Dolce & Gabbana, along with retailers like Marks and Spencer, for their new lines of hijab-inspired clothing. The flowing dresses, brightly printed headscarves, and even a bathing suit dubbed the "burkini" provided panache, Rossignol declared, to a religiously sanctioned form of female oppression. "It is irresponsible," she thundered.
What about those Muslim women, her interviewer asked, who chose to wear the hijab — the headscarf also known, misleadingly, as a voile or veil — as a sign of pride in their faith? Rossignol would not buy it: "There were also American negroes who favored slavery."
Et voilà, another chapter in France's long-running identity crisis was opened. "L'affaire du burkini" goes to the heart of the country's debate over national identity — one that has grown more vexed and violent in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks in Paris and the steady press of Syrian refugees at the nation's borders.
The hijab fight began in earnest in 1989, when a school principal expelled a handful of Muslim girls who refused to remove their hijabs. France's highest administrative court ruled against the principal and ordered that the girls (and their hijabs) be reinstated. In 2003, the government made another stab at keeping the hijab out of schools. This time, the judges, marked by the events of 9/11, permitted the law. While the court's ruling also banned yarmulkes and Sikh turbans, it might just as well have included Mickey Mouse caps: Everyone understood that the hijab was the law's raison d'être.
The so-called "French intifada" rocked the country before the ink could dry on the law books. In 2005, the suburbs of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and other cities — desolate homes to thousands of unemployed and under-educated youths, many of North African origin — exploded in riots. Then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to "flush out the scum" from the suburbs. On the strength of that promise, Sarkozy was elected president and, in 2011, orchestrated the passage of another law banning women from wearing the niqab, a full-length Muslim garment that also covers most of the face. Violators could be fined 150 euros and obliged to "take lessons in French citizenship." (Since then, the small number of citations — an average of 200 women every year — reflects less the actual number of women wearing the niqab, than the reluctance of the police to enforce the law.)
Five years later, as Rossignol's remarks make clear, France has not settled this issue. French citizens are still fighting over the meaning of what it means to be French and a citizen. Tellingly, Rossignol's inexcusable use of "negro" raised many more eyebrows than did her claim that no woman in her right mind would freely choose to wear a hijab in a democratic and liberal state. After all, observed Pierre Bergé, the cofounder of Yves Saint Laurent, our duty is to "teach women how to undress."
Public figures with greater gravitas have also entered the fray. In an interview with Le Monde, the renowned feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter rallied to Rossignol's defense. While she "regretted" the minister's use of the word "negro," Badinter, the author of several critically acclaimed works and wife of former Socialist Minister of Justice Robert Badinter, declared that Rossignol's critique was spot-on. So much so that she called for a boycott of fashion designers offering these lines of clothing, as well as stores that carry them.
Her blunt remarks have made Badinter the political left's La Pasionara of republican secularism, or laïcité. Nothing more, at its origins, than a 1905 law that formalized the divorce between state and church, laïcitié transmogrified towards the end of the century. From a constitutional guarantee of "the freedom of conscience and free exercise of religious faiths," it billowed into a worldview. It is a world without headscarves in the schools, without hijabs in the stores, and without burkinis on the beaches. It is also a world without mosques dotting cityscapes and without halal meals served in school cafeterias.
In effect, it is a world where Muslims eat, drink, and dress like proper Frenchmen and women.
The Front National, France's authoritarian and xenophobic party, also embraces this particular worldview. Few remarks better lay bare the metamorphosis of laïcité than one made last year by Marion Maréchal Le Pen. Niece of the party's leader, Marine Le Pen, and granddaughter of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the young representative affirmed her party's commitment to laïcité. Without pausing, she then warned: "If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion."
In this Orwellian twist to laïcité, everyone is French, but some are more French than others.
Critics of this narrowly ideological perspective are not lacking. The well-known journalist Nadia Daam, whose family came from Morocco, wrote that she was "fed up" with the never-ending debate over headscarves. "Not a burqa, not a chador, not a niqab. Just a scarf on the head." Lambasting feminists like Rossignol and Badinter who take Muslim women for "imbeciles," Daam asked: "Why are we forced to accept this binary form of reasoning which dictates that liberated women do not wear scarves, while those who do are necessarily constrained?"
Why indeed? Nearly three centuries ago, one of the greatest figures of the French Enlightenment, Baron de Montesquieu, first posed the question that France has yet to answer. His epistolary novel The Persian Letters recounts the reactions of two Persian visitors to 18th century Paris. One of them, who is dressed like a Frenchman, overhears an aristocratic woman marveling over these exotic visitors. "How can one be Persian?" she wonders. The real question, for Montesquieu, was not even how one can be French. It is, instead, why we assume that only our own way of life has universal sanction.
Perhaps when fashion runways are no longer barricades, but bridges between cultures, we will have our answer.