Saudi media blast French push against burka

Posted at 06/24/09 7:03 PM

RIYADH - Journalists in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia blasted France on Wednesday over President Nicolas Sarkozy's criticism of the burka, the head-to-toe garment favored for women by conservative Muslims.

"What about personal freedom? What about respect for people's traditions and privacy?" Dawood al-Shiryan asked in Al-Hayat.

"What would be the reaction of French and European women if they had to cover their faces and hair in an Islamic country?"

Shams Ahsan, in the Saudi Gazette, asked "who is indecent and spoils public morals: a burka-clad woman or the one in a bikini?"

Readers' emails to the Gazette insisted that the burka is a "symbol of freedom" and that "the nude culture is degrading to women."

On Monday Sarkozy called the burka a sign of women's "subservience" that was "not welcome" in staunchly secular France.

"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity."

An editorial in Arab News said the French approach to the burka was founded in the country's secular society, while the Dutch and Danish attempts to restrict it were rooted in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant racism.

It said "France must tread carefully."

"It is right and proper, too, that Muslims, when in France or any other non-Muslim country, accept the laws there -- providing that those laws do not impinge on their faith, nor do they stop them from exercising their beliefs.

"Banning the burka does just that," it said.

Saudi Arabia has the strictest dress code for women in the Middle East. It requires them in public to wear an all-black, shroud-like abaya and cover their head, hair and face with the niqab, at best leaving only their eyes uncovered.

Foreign women do not have to cover their faces, but are pushed to keep their hair covered -- though many flout that rule.