I read an outline of islamic women's head coverings on the BBC:
I remember my grandma used to wear a large folded silk square on her head. She was a christian woman and probably wore it out of the fashion of her time. I have usually associated women's head coverings with older women or stories of ancient women.
I think the tradition of wearing head coverings is much older than islam. Note this Bible verse from the New Testament which predates the founding of islam by hundreds of years:
"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head,since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (1 Corinthians 11:3-10)"
I don't believe in any of that. I think any human can pray or not pray to whatever they will or nothing at all, with a head covered or not. I quote it to point out that the head covering as a muslim political symbol is a co-opted anachronism.
I think head coverings can be attractive on women. I like the way women use dress to enhance their beauty. In the case of a muslim head covering, it can be a very positive statement of faith, virtue and identity that can also be beautiful.
I am not happy with the idea that the head covering is imposed on any woman rather than chosen. At certain lengths, it becomes an insult to women's freedom, individuality and dignity. I also think that some levels of coverage create anti-social situations and security concerns.
A Turkish or French muslim who wears the hijab as a personal religious choice is a bright spot in a free society to me. Yet at the extremes of the Taliban enforcing repressive systems upon women, I believe any symbol thereof becomes incendiary.
The Naqib and the Burkah seem to me to reduce the status and human dignity of women and are not socially viable in the west, even though they are often tolerated. I think the human face is important to identifying who it is you are dealing with and what their intentions are. Also, perhaps unfortunately, these "over everything" coverings have been used by some muslim women to commit suicide bombings in some areas of the world. Sometimes these coverings are used to smuggle lawbreaking men away from justice, in disguise.
Headscarves are banned in French schools. This seems to be what they have chosen to do to reduce the likelihood of religious tension among classmates. Though, to someone who desires to follow the counsel of her faith, it may be a big sacrifice. Perhaps something akin to asking a catholic girl to go to school without a shirt on.
In much the same way that a child can be sent home for wearing the wrong t-shirt to school, I believe that in some situations it is appropriate to curtail symbolic dress in schools. This is especially important if what one person is proud to wear causes enormous tension in classmates.
In another way, the headscarf can be a symbol of anti-semitism. When many muslim societies wrongly deny the holocaust, muslim dress styles tend to symbolize anti-jewish feelings to some people.
On the other side of this debate, there is a lot of rhetoric in France speaking of muslim immigrants who won't integrate or change their faith. The immigrants are accused of being the cause of many problems in France like crime or economic issues. All of this is hauntingly familiar from the rhetoric used in Germany in the 1930's against jews.
I think of politicians in their suits, gang members and their representative attire, mini-skirts on Wall Street or hemp sweaters in San Francisco and I realize the cloth-speech is all around us.
In a truly free society we should all be able to wear what we chose. Though symbolism seems to permeate clothing like a language of its own.