Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading the Burka

EARLIER TODAY, FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy dissed the burka.

In a policy speech before a parliamentary committee, Sarkozy argued that the burka devalues women and in so doing is, in essence, at variance with French values. "The burka is not a sign of religion," Sarkozy quipped. "It is a sign of subservience."

This notion of the burka as a symbol--as a loaded text--is something that had gone underexamined in Western culture. In truth, the burka doesn't cover the body much more than a traditional wedding dress and veil, but as symbols they do vastly different cultural work.

For Sarkozy, the experience of the individual woman wearing the burka is less important than what the burka indicates. The burka does not itself repress, Sarkozy might assert, but as a semiotic text it signifies repression. And, in a world that relies on symbols and symbolism, to symbolize is to be. So, even if a garment does not literally restrict--as a wedding gown might--if it signifies restriction, then it restricts. It is for this reason that he is considering banning the burka in France.

Typically, when we think of censoring clothing, it is because the item in question is too sexually explicit, too revealing, but in the case of the burka, its transgression lies in its extreme coverage. Not enough is revealed. It denies (or indicates denial); it restricts (or suggests restriction); it shames (or signifies shame). For Sarkozy, the burka also represents a lack of independence. It is, Sarkozy claims, a garment that embodies subservience.

The question is, why fight a garment and not the ideology that creates the garment?

Don't misunderstand. I'm no fan of the burka. But, the gesture feels empty. Perhaps this is because the push to ban the burka takes place in the same symbolic field as the burka itself. Put another way, if the burka's offense is symbolic, "banning" it is as well.

On the other hand, could such a decision backfire?

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, understands the power of semiotics and political symbolism. For him, such a decision will lead to "stigmatising Islam"--a fascinating choice of words, given "stigma's" roots in Christianity. The stigmata--the holes in the recently crucified hands of Jesus Christ--served as a symbol not simply that Christ died but that he was resurrected. Religious symbols beget religious symbols.

Either way, Moussaoui knows that a public policy outlawing clothes sends a message not just about the garment but about values. Sarkozy knows he can't outlaw Islam (or the radical factions of it), so perhaps he can do the next best thing--take away some of its semiotic power.

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