In modern politics, there are few trustier weapons than Muslim women's clothes. The Saudis and the mullahs in Iran have used them for decades, passing laws on women's head coverings to underscore male rulers' piety and power. George W. Bush knew the symbolic potency of the veil, too, citing the discrimination of American 'women of cover' during post 9/11 tensions. Now two Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, have taken up the veil, framing it as a topic in radically different ways. Sarkozy used Muslim dress as a nationalistic prop, seeing it as a threat to France's eternal values. Obama used it as a chance to set out a new approach to U.S.-Muslim relations, based on a framework of freedoms. Both attitudes are flawed; both ignore the struggles of Muslim women over matters far more formidable than veils.
In his speech at Versailles, Sarkozy denounced the burqa, the all-enveloping garment worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women as "not welcome on French territory." Obama's speech in Cairo took a different tack. His concern was not the hijab the Muslim woman's head covering so much as a woman's right to wear it if she so chose. Western countries, Obama said, cannot dictate the dress of Muslim women. "We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism."
A clutch of Western countries have put curbs on burqas and niqabs, the full-face veils that leave only a slit for the eyes. The Irish have banned the burqa from classrooms, and in June, the Michigan Supreme Court gave judges the power to direct how witnesses dress for court, after a Muslim woman refused to take off her niqab while testifying. The French, however, have gone beyond practical arguments, saying that face veils don't just gum up processes in courts, surgeries and schools, but are an affront to the republic itself and its traditions of secularism. In 2004, France banned head scarves from schools and public buildings. "In our country," said Sarkozy on June 22, "we cannot accept that women are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of an identity ... This is not the French republic's idea of dignity ... When we meet women who wear it, we try to educate them, and explain to them that moderation is a better choice."
Trying to rescue Muslim women is a French tradition dating back to the colonization of Algeria in the 1830s. Saving Algeria's veiled population was central to France's mission civilisatrice to bring the Enlightenment to Arabs. For French colonialists, the veiled Algerian woman was both a sign of resistance to French attempts to shape their society, and a rallying cry to redouble their civilizing efforts. "The Arabs elude us," fretted one general in the 1840s, "because they conceal their women from our gaze." In her brilliant 2007 book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott writes that banning the veil has been "a way of insisting on the timeless superiority of French 'civilization' in the face of a changing world."
Obama avoided any sense that American values and Islamic ones were in conflict. Instead, he offered a more porous vision of both Islam and the West, one in which "Islam has always been a part of America's story." Where Sarkozy rushed to define what the burqa meant ("subservience ... debasement"), Obama just cast the hijab as a personal choice, protected by law.
Which sounds fine, and what you would expect from a former constitutional law professor. But by talking only of women's dress (with a nod to their right to education) Obama ignored the many challenges Muslim women face, such as polygamy, early marriage, honor killings or the legalized sexism of family laws across the Muslim world. Little wonder that in the blogopshere, he managed to unite feminists and conservatives in fury at his reduction of Muslim women to nothing more than what they wear on their heads. "Why this emphasis on the hijab," blogged Amal Amireh, a Palestinian feminist, "as if it is the essence of what a Muslim woman is?"
In the weeks since the two speeches, Iran has shown the world a different, more muscular image of Muslim women. The Tehran protesters, in their emerald hijabs, were not human signboards for imposed conservatism, as Sarkozy might think. But nor did they fit Obama's formulation of Muslim womanhood, one which needed legal protection for the freedom to wear what it likes. Iran's women are determinedly political actors, claiming fundamental rights, and deserving our support when they do so. When they risk their lives to claim such rights, what they wear is irrelevant. With Muslim women showing such involvement in basic political struggles, is it too much to hope that Western male leaders will find something more worthwhile to comment on than their clothes?