It may be because I'm too English for Gallic high rhetoric but it's very difficult to take seriously France's impassioned debate about banning the burka. It's something that affects, at most, a couple of thousand people amongst a couple of million Muslims in France. For the average citizen a covered female face is a lot less obtrusive, and certainly less threatening, than a hooded youth, of which there are tens of thousands in the city, even in summer.
And yet here we have France's National Assemblée voting this week by 335 to a single objector for a bill that would make it an offence punishable by fine to appear in public in the full veil, and could send a man down for a year if it was then found out that he had insisted his wife or daughter wear it. A "walking coffin" one French MP described it, "a sign of alienation on their faces" said a member of the ruling party, "a threat to French values" declared another. To which the English response is "come off it" (the declamation not the veil).
The question of the full coverage of the face is a serious one but it is one for the Muslim communities themselves to argue out, not a bunch of overexcited Christian and secular legislators – including the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy – to make of it an issue of national rights and cultural absolutes.
And it's a lot more nuanced a debate than a straight matter of female oppression or specific Islamic beliefs. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and, for that matter, parts of Africa and South-east Asia, the veil is undoubtedly the weapon of patriarchy and the release from it the challenge of feminism in those countries.
It's more a social issue than a religious one. In the Hindu villages of India, young women have to hide their faces even from the older men of the villages of their marriage. But, however expressed, imposed dress in traditionalist countries is about power and modernity.
Around Europe, in North Africa and the Middle East nations, the veil has become not an instrument of oppression but of identity. Go to Turkey and Tunisia and you will encounter an older generation brought up as secularists deeply perturbed at a younger generation returning to "conservative values". For the parents, the rejection of traditional dress and habits was a proof of anti-colonialism. To maintain tradition was almost to accept subservience.
To their children, the opposite is the case. Returning to the past is a demonstration of a rejection of Western dominance and full-body coverage an expression not of slavery but of self-worth. The tension between secularism and Islam is a very real one now throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Educated, middle-class young women are as likely to be on the side of covering up as ill-educated working men are on the other. The Turkish government has made the cause of democratic progress a repeal of the law banning the wearing of the veil in state offices or government occasions. And the tensions are bound to spread – are already spreading – to Muslims in Western Europe.
The very worse thing to do, however, is to politicise what is essentially a social issue by making it into a political question of secularism, feminism or Eastern-versus-Western values. Yet this is precisely what the legislators of Paris, as the proponents of the ban in Spain, the Netherlands and even Britain would have it be.
Frightened by the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and unnerved by the loss of nationalist and ethnic certainties of globalisation, a whole range of opinion from working-class right-wing nationalists to left-wing middle-class secularists have combined to make the burka into a litmus test of rectitude. And all for their own reasons.
The right wing embraces the cause because of their resentment at immigration, centrist politicians such as Sarkozy because they can use it to paint themselves in patriotic colours and women's groups because this can be presented as an up-and-down issue of women's rights.
When none dare oppose a law, as happened in the Paris Assemblée on Tuesday afternoon, you can be pretty sure that a bandwagon is being driven for reasons of political self-interest. And when the vote is over 99 per cent in favour of something, you can be pretty sure that it is wrong.
And wrong the burka banning movement is. If there is a problem – and you can certainly argue that there is – in teachers hiding their face whilst communicating with children or your doctor, passport officer or local government official discussing your case through a muslin or cotton mask, then it is perfectly possible to ban the dress in such circumstances, or to allow shops, restaurants or anyone else to forbid their employees keeping the veil on while communicating to clients. But banning it entirely in public, let alone trying to criminalise husbands who insist on their wives adopting it, is both unenforceable in practice and an open invitation for the committed deliberately to seek victimhood to further their cause.
Multiculturalism has become a contentious issue. If it means simply leaving minorities to their own devices, it must be wrong. But if rejecting it means trying to impose a centrist set of values on communities already feeling isolation, then it is bound just to lead to trouble.
Interviewing the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, about his time as Chancellor of Oxford University, he recalled his reaction to the time of sit-ins and student demonstrations. "What should we do, should we send for the police?" they asked when the Sheldonian Theatre was occupied. "Oh, do nothing," the great political actor-manager replied, "just send them sandwiches. After all, the building has no files that they can ransack."
There's nothing much that women insisting on wearing the burka can do to society at large except irritate it. But there's a great deal of harm that you can do if you make martyrs of them.
For further reading
Christian Joppke: Veil (2009); John R. Bowen, 'Why the French Don't Like Headscarves' (2008)
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