Muslim women wearing a hijab (clockwise, from top left), a niqab, a burqa and a chador.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced plans last week to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa — a loose-fitting garment that covers women completely from head to toe, usually with mesh over the eyes.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said. "The burqa is not a religious sign; it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement."
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and has historically been at odds with this minority population. In 2004, the Muslim head scarf was banned in public schools, along with the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses, and in 2005 a series of riots erupted throughout the country fueled by the death of two North African immigrants. An estimated 5 million Muslims live in France, though few women wear burqas or niqabs, a similar garment that covers everything and leaves only a slit for the eyes.
The announcement by Sarkozy was met with mixed response from the Muslim community around the world. Mehded Maryam Sinclair is an American Muslim currently living in Amman, Jordan. She wears a niqab in public.
"Niqab is not required in my religion," Sinclair said. "But I choose it."
Sinclair explained she feels a closer connection with her faith when wearing the niqab, though she recognizes that it may be uncomfortable, or even threatening, for others when they see her in public.
"I think in society there is a collective brainwashing that goes on," Sinclair said. "When you see a woman with a head scarf, what's to be worried about? Why is it a big issue?"
But many Muslim women strongly disagree with Sinclair, and some even support Sarkozy's proposed ban.
"When you put a woman behind a burqa or a niqab or any kind of face covering, she is removed from society," said Mona Eltahawy, a syndicated columnist currently living in New York. "I don't know who that person is anymore."
Eltahawy was born in Egypt and wore a head scarf for nine years. She stopped covering her head at the age of 25, when she no longer believed it was required of her by her faith. She also rejects the notion of some, like Sinclair, that the more covered a woman's body, the closer connection she can have with Islam.
"I detest the covering of a woman's face because ... in a very disturbing way it associates increased piety with the disappearance of women from society," Eltahawy says.
The proposal by Sarkozy is set to be reviewed by a cross-party panel of 32 lawmakers. A decision is expected in six months.
Hear the full conversation with Mona Eltahawy and Mehded Maryam Sinclair by clicking the "Listen" button in the upper left-hand corner.