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Global Ethics Corner: France and Burqas

June 26, 2009

Can you choose your own clothes?

Addressing Parliament, President Sarkozy said the French Republic had no room for burqas, the outer garment cloaking a woman's face and body: "The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women's dignity."

France's Muslim Council agreed, calling burqas "marginal phenomena": "When we meet women who wear it, we try to educate them, and explain to them that moderation is a better choice."

The issue dates from the French Revolution's idea of laïcité which places religion in private life separate from the public life of citizens.

However, for some Muslim women, burqas are dictated by the Qur'an's charge to dress modestly. The burqa or the similar combination of chador and headscarf are minimum requirements of faith.

Sarkozy says that the burqa is "a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women." True for many, but other Muslim women emphatically embrace this enveloping garment.

What do you think? Do burqas indicate repression? Should the state ensure that citizens aren't confronted with religious statements? Can people wear anything or nothing? Where does the state's obligation end?

By William Vocke

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