May 26, 2010

A few years ago, the French Chamber of Deputies was debating a bill to prohibit the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in state institutions. The proposed law, drafted as the affirmation of a universal secular principle, would ban Jewish boys from wearing kippas, Christians from sporting large crucifixes, and Muslim girls from covering their heads with scarves at government schools. The anti-foulard  (scarf) law, as the press called it, was clearly intended to de-Islamize those Muslim women for whom the connection between their religion and that form of piety was important. All of France’s major political parties supported the measure, as did a Muslim women’s rights group called Ni putes ni soumises. (The name means “neither prostitutes nor submissive,” although it sounds better in French. A handier version might be “not hookers, but not housewives.”) I interviewed politicians, who saw the bill as a bulwark around the secularism of the republic. The women at Ni putes ni soumises to whom I spoke had another angle: they thought the law would put a limit to the North African patriarchy that had transplanted itself to French soil more or less intact. Although they did not see the issue as Jean-Marie Le Pen and the rest of the French right did, they made common cause with those who were against their mere presence as immigrants in France on behalf of women’s rights. Politics and bedfellows.

The largest affected group was to be teenage girls in state schools, given that few Christians are given to wearing foot-long crucifixes and most kippa-wearing lads study in non-state yeshivas. So, I went out to the banlieue of Paris to ask the girls what they thought. First, a note on the banlieue—the outskirts or the suburbs. They surround Paris, having expanded in concentric circles from the old center over centuries. A recurring theme in Parisian history is the city’s fear of the sans culottes beyond the fashionable arrondissements. Originally peasants from the near countryside, followed later by those from the further provinces and latterly the former colonies, they became the industrial workforce and, now, the post-industrial proletariat. Although the good burghers of the Right Bank have always required their services, they did not much like their presence or their demands for fair treatment. From the late 19th to mid-20th century, the denizens of the banlieue constituted the Red Fringe at the gates ready to loot and pillage. There were examples: the revolution as well as the communes of 1848 and 1870. This fear of the near-outsider was so strong in June 1940 that many of France’s rulers thought the lower classes posed a greater threat to them than the Wehrmacht. The American ambassador at the time, William Bullitt, was so convinced the suburbs would rise up and take over Paris that he persuaded President Roosevelt to ship Tommy guns to protect the embassy. (Red rebellion wasn”€™t on the cards in 1940, because the French Communist Party, obedient to Hitler’s Soviet ally, did nothing to impede the German occupation of Paris.) Nowadays, the French police do their best to confine discontent and occasional riots to the suburbs themselves—not unlike the Los Angeles police in relation to Watts.

Back to the banlieue during the foulard debate. The young women I met in the schools of suburban Paris would have done credit to any family. They were not gum-chewing drunks like London’s street urchins, and they bore little resemblance to the girl gangs of many American urban concentrations. They were thoughtful and polite and, from their polished shoes to their sometimes-covered heads, exhibited an elegant sense of style. As I recall, the scarf-wearers were no more than twenty per cent of the total. The bareheaded girls respected the decision of the others to wear scarves and vice versa. Some were from the same families, in which each girl made her own choice of what to wear. None of them said their mothers or fathers had forced them to wear scarves, and more than a few said their mothers—whose own forms of anti-parental rebellion twenty years earlier led them to cast off the scarf—would never cover their own hair.

“The law makes it illegal for a husband to force his wife to wear a veil, which is reasonable enough. But it gives a policeman authority to force a woman not to wear one.”

Most saw the proposed law as typical adult interference in the lives of the young. It was not so much an anti-Muslim law as an anti-youth slap at them by the state. One told me that her teachers were always finding ways to make them conform, and this law would give them another rule to enforce against them. Another said she would stop going to school and find a tutor at home rather than give up her right to dress as she pleased. What struck me was the lack of any need for a law that would give adults—teachers, social workers and cops—another stick with which to beat the young. The law passed, and it has been obeyed more consistently than those that prohibit smoking in restaurants, cocaine-snorting, and wife-beating. Still, it doesn”€™t mean it’s a good law.

While I was reporting the controversy, I did my best not to take sides. French secularism (one need recall only the cardinals of the ancien regime to understand its inspiration) and the arguments of the Muslim women in Ni putes ni soumises made sense. Then again, so did the students. A few days later, I took a train to London. At Waterloo Station, where the Eurostar stopped in those days, a British Muslim woman immigration officer was standing with her male colleagues. Her head was wrapped in a demure, white scarf. She was laughing unselfconsciously with her male colleagues, one of them a Sikh whose own head was wrapped in the long scarf of his turban. It was the most natural scene imaginable. I had to ask myself, what is wrong with the French?

Now, France is doing it again. A new law has just banned women from wearing veils. This anti-niqab law passed the legislature with ease, supported like its predecessor by the main parties of left and right. Where the earlier law banned scarves only in buildings owned by the state—schools, courts of law, government hospitals and, I assume, prisons—this one makes it illegal for a woman to cover her face anywhere outside her house. As far as anyone can tell, France has about five or six million Muslims, of whom about 1,200 women wear veils or niqabs. (I don”€™t know whether widows who wear veils to their husbands”€™ funerals, as my Christian grandmothers did, are also in violation of the law.) The few Muslim women who have been quoted in the newspapers about their veils (some of them native French converts) have said they wear their niqabs over their faces in spite of their husbands. The law makes it illegal for a husband to force his wife to wear a veil, which is reasonable enough. But it gives a policeman authority to force a woman not to wear one. It seems the police do not relish this new power. It is bad enough to make the police enforce other unenforceable laws (like those against drug use and smoking in cafés) without putting them at odds with 1,200 women who are doing harm to no one.

The anti-niqab law stems from the kind of zeal for which the French used to ridicule the English. English missionaries who forced women in their tropical colonies to conceal their breasts from public view were a laughing stock in France. Here are the French doing the opposite, not letting them cover their heads. What is it in Western civilization that creates this obsession with telling women what to wear? I suppose we Americans have done both. The new American missionaries of the civil order in Afghanistan tell Afghan women to uncover, just as an earlier generation of American missionaries forced the women of Hawaii to cover up. What ever happened to live and let live?


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