Tuesday, April 27, 2010

inside looking out

I've been listening to a lot of public radio lately. Recently, I heard a story on Worldview about the future of the niqab in France. It's been haunting me for days; Nicolas Sarkozy, that mispronouncing folksy tool with the insanely hot wife, said that the niqab was "not welcome on French soil." This, after it Belgium took steps to ban the niqab and the burqa in public places. It popped off a series of fireworks about who defines what it means to be French and how and why. I was hooked, listening to this series of men and women argue about the nature of their identity, of French identity and nationalism, of exposition and privacy.

But what do these things mean? They seem like issues that people don't think about very often. When I get dressed in the morning, I am almost always considering what I wear because I don't want to be cold at some point in the day, and the weather here is so unpredictable. With the onset of spring, I regret to say that I consider what kind of comments I might incur, and it sometimes affects what I wear. But not since I was living with my parents did I ever consider what I was wearing in terms of what kind of religious statement I might be making with it. Nor have I ever looked at a pair of jeans, a turtleneck sweater, a miniskirt or boots, and thought, well I can't wear this, it's just utterly un-American.

I bring up the issue of national identity, because in the course of the story, several people, including one of France's beloved poets, argues that wearing a garment like this--whether in pursuit of religious expression or not--is a decidedly un-French thing to do. It violates the tenets of the French Republic, some say, liberty, equality, fraternity. If one of us is plain and out for all to see, and the other is hidden and covered up, how can their be equality between we two? You must consider yourself better than be, in order to be veiled. You are permitted to see all of me, but you will show me only your eyes. This makes us unequal.

I think it's a valid argument, though not without its flaws. But I get stuck on the idea that someone exercising their right to choose how they practice their religion is an un-French thing to do. When identifying as French and identifying as Muslim go head to head, one of them must lose; the government will not allow you to be both, at least not in public.

Is it true that wearing a veil is a sign of female repression, perpetrated by a patriarchal religion that is misogynistic at its core? Is this kind of question akin to the question of hymen replacement surgery? Or is it just something that those of us who are not followers, with our western ideals, that only masquerade as open-minded, can never hope to understand? I don't know. This is such a land mine issue; there are some things about a culture that you just don't get if you don't know, and sweeping in to change it because it contradicts what we're comfortable with reeks of white missionaries converting natives. But the thing is, maybe I have unrealistic expectations of France. Maybe France does not promise its citizens the freedom to choose how to worship, and so it can legislate how you can and can't observe your religious practice.

But how many of these women, women who, like the women in this story, elect to wear the naqib as a gesture of empowerment and devotion, how many of them are light-skinned? How many of them "look French"? If such a thing even exists. Would people be making such a big deal out of this if those women desiring to wear this floor length veil that reveals only the eyes of its wearer, if these women had the eyes and skin of women whose families have been in France for centuries, instead of the eyes and skin of first generation French citizens?
In a few days, the UK is going to elect its next Prime Minister, and the coverage of this election tells me that English citizens are worked up over the issue of immigration. They struggle with people who aren't English, who come into their country and take their jobs and change their national identity. They sound alarmingly like some Americans. I suppose it's just my naivete, but I'd assumed that abroad, in Europe, the Old World, that ideas like this were anachronistic and anathema to what Europeans knew themselves to be, especially in the world culture. But the nature of the world is changing; immigration, which has been happening since forever, is perhaps easier or at least more prevalent, than maybe its ever been. It seems to me that white people who've known their national identity tied to their racial one are running scared.
I'm really grieved by this. The world isn't going to grow less diverse, only more. The sands are shifting. This kind of ignorance and fear based solely on white privilege doesn't bode well for the global community that's being created.

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