Women wearing burquas wait to cast their votes in the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech that called burqas "a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women." Sarkozy vowed that burqas, the facial veils worn primarily by Muslim women, would not be welcome in France because the country didn't believe that women should be "imprisoned" or "deprived of identity" [source: Carvajal].

Veiling has been a particularly hot-button issue in France, which has the largest Muslim population in western Europe. Just a year earlier, the country made headlines for denying citizenship to a woman who wore a veil. Despite the fact that her husband and children were born in France, authorities claimed that the woman had not assimilated properly, presumably assumedly because she refused to take off her veil [source: Bennhold]. And it's not just a topic of discussion in France: British politicians such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw have said that the veil sets women apart, and Egyptian officials banned veils in university settings, citing concerns about security [sources: Eltahawy]. In the U.S., a judge dismissed a small-claims court case because the plaintiff refused to remove her face veil [source: Applebaum].

As Sarkozy's speech suggests, it's very hard for some people to imagine that women wouldn't want to remove their veils immediately if given the chance. Requiring women to wear a burqa is just one way that the Taliban terrorized women in Afghanistan; failing to don the garment earned women public beatings. After troops entered Afghanistan to take on the Taliban in 2001, reporters spoke of women walking into the streets and ripping off their veils [source: Whitlock]. To some, this made the burqa an enduring symbol of an oppressive and dangerous regime.

That's not the only symbolism the burqa has taken on; the garment now means so many things to different people that it can be difficult to suss out its real meaning and purpose. To those like Sarkozy, the veil is a dehumanizing prison that turns women into second-class citizens. To others, the veil is a sign of modesty and piety as well as a badge of honor. It's possible to see the veil as a rejection of Western values and the uniform of a dangerous subculture, while some who wear the veil insist that a ban like Sarkozy's would represent censorship, repression and an affront to freedom of religion.

So what does the veil mean, exactly?