This post was originally written for Muslimah Media Watch in 2010. I am reproducing it here for safekeeping as an author under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. It was also cross-posted at Muslim Voices. For reposts, you are kindly asked to also seek the permission of the MMW editorial team and credit that site accordingly. For trackbacks and links for citation, always use this link at MMW. In doubt, original credit should still always point to Muslimah Media Watch.
Un voile, Un certain moi de juin is the story of French artist Bérengère Lefranc’s decision to wear a “burqa” (although she hesitates to define it as such) for one month and write about it. I was skeptical about this book after reading an initial review of it in Swiss daily Le Temps. Not normally a fan of these “Let’s play dress up” stories, I set out to read the book anyway. Already, the title bothers me. ”Voile” is “veil” in French, and the garment Ms. Lefrance wears most closely resembles a burqa. It seems that for the French, veils and burqas are pretty much the same thing (or maybe, that was Ms. Lefranc’s point).
The premise is simple: she is going to wear a burqa for one month. The only person—male or female—allowed to see her without is her boyfriend Hubert.
She takes great pains to insist she isn’t trying to be “Muslim”- that her journey is about her art, about covering herself up. ”I didn’t want to slip into the skin of a Muslim, rather, I wanted to hide gracefully from the looks of others. And continue to live normally.” (p. 135) She even shies away from defining her gown as a burqa.
However, the comparisons to Islam and Muslim women are inevitable, something even she is resigned to. Her female friends even encourage her to “take it off” around them, noting that Muslim women don’t wear their veils around other women.
And if it wasn’t clear enough that she wasn’t doing this to “be Muslim,” she mentions several episodes where she is either smoking or drinking while fully burqa-fied–although she was refused a glass of white wine once because “ladies in burqas aren’t supposed to drink.” She tells the bartender she isn’t Muslim. He tells her in return: “When women are forced to wear it because they have no choice, that is respectable. But if [you are wearing it] for other reasons, well you’re just making fun of women.” (p. 95) Lefranc was rightfully scandalized: here was a man trying to tell her not only what she should wear, but how she should feel about it.
Lefranc uses the “I’m not a Muslim argument” as a defense when the going gets too tough. In stores and in shops, she seems quick to insist that what she is doing is an “experiment.” This is evident in the beginning of the book, where her first trick is to go vote. Since you can’t vote in France if your face isn’t visible, she has a proxy made for her boyfriend, yet still accompanies him to the voting location.
Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), the fact that it is an “experience” makes it “okay” by some French people in a way a burqa worn for religious reasons would not pass. In fact, the officials were all smiles when she showed up to vote. What Lefranc does is acceptable because it is art, but what a Muslim woman wears is not acceptable because it is religion. Something even she refers to when she mentions on page 135 (cited above) that she wanted to live normally under her “burqa”, but found that “living normally” was impossible with such a “religious image.”
To be fair, Lefranc goes through a lot of what I went through when I first put on the veil in France (which is likely similar to a lot of places): incomprehension, stares, accusations of provocation. I found myself even sympathizing with her as the book progressed. I even thought towards the end that she “got it.” She was like the new convert little sister, all covered up and guns blazing, ready to go.
The spectrum of emotions she felt under the burqa was not dissimilar to those any person adopting a new lifestyle feel. Like her, when I first started wearing the veil, I didn’t want to go outside. It was easier to stay inside than deal with the drama of people’s looks, the weather, even just putting an outfit together. Likewise, when she took it off at the end of the month, she too had trouble with people looking at her body, saying that the way people looked at her, especially her décolleté, “made her want to scream.” (p. 127)
The strangest bit was her rather frank descriptions of her sex life and her relationship with Hubert, which too seemed to change. She blamed this change on the distance the veil created, even though he was the only one to see her without it. That was the only part of her diary I felt contrived and out of place because it called her intimacy into question. She wonders in the beginning of the book if her boyfriend’s look will “be enough,” as if somehow we thrive on being looked upon by others. Could he carry this burden himself? (p. 14)
And while I enjoyed her openness, her ability to criticize herself, and her honesty, one passage at the end of the book made me realize that she didn’t get it at all. And this after one month of “walking in our shoes” and three days after the end of her “experiment,” she writes: “I think about these women who wear the veil, by choice or by obligation. What is their life that the response is [the veil]? What faith pushes [them] to choose darkness over light?” (p. 151)
For me, Un voile was better than your typical clichéd “let’s wear a burqa” news story, but falls short in its final analysis.