France And Its Stance Against The Symbolic Repression Of Women Through Dress
- by Helen Klein
Reading HuffPo yesterday, an article written by Manuel Valls, Prime Minister of France, struck a chord. It should be a must read, especially for women. He wrote, In France, Women are Free, in response to the recent NY Times article, The Way People Look at Us Has Changed: Muslim Women on Life in Europe, by Lillie Dremeaux.
Valls criticizes the perspective of this article, which he views as one sided, and he presents a coherent and well thought out defense of France’s position regarding the burqa. I found it courageous and heartening and a far different version of "political correctness" about this issue than we typically read. He may well be vilified for it.
Valls’ stance makes much sense to me, and comes somewhat as a relief as he gives credence to many of my underlying thoughts and feelings. As a life-long progressive and supporter of women’s rights, I have harbored a great deal of ambivalence and distress about this burqa business. Should Muslim women in France have the right to be subjugated and oppressed and treated as inferior to men? What is the government’s role in promoting dress code? Does the government have a right to deny this symbolism of women as subservient to men when it comes to dress in the public sphere? If so, under what circumstances or situations?
There is another take on Islamic women who wear the burqa and adamantly speak out about their rights. In Muslim countries, they could not speak out at all. It is in France (and the West) that they have a voice, such as in the NY Times. The hypocrisy of this is lamentable. I recall one woman on the news, dressed in a burka, screaming into the microphone about her rights. In Middle Eastern countries, she’d likely be stoned to death.
A little aside here first…
I have a close friend whose husband is French. A year ago, when visiting his family in Toulouse, she was dismayed by the number of women walking down the street wearing burqas. As she described this to me, I tried to imagine how I would feel if this were the case in my town of Katonah, in upper Westchester. I tried to imagine how I would feel if women wore burkinis in the pool where I swim at a health club.
My first thought was that this covering up to this extent is a symbol of oppression of women, an intention as clear as crystal. It upsets me; I can’t help it and hate to admit it, but I imagine many American women feel this way. Is this prejudice, a lack of tolerance on my part? Or is this a justifiable reaction to a symbol of inferior status to men and limited freedom for women? Is there a line that should not be crossed about covering up one’s face in public life? Such as a citizenship ceremony in Canada? Working in a government office? What about when driving a car?
Coming of age in Queens in the sixties, I recall how differently girls were viewed and treated in those days. From kindergarten through high school, I was never allowed to wear pants to school. Even on snowy days, if we wore pants underneath our skirts, we had to remove them. There were only intramural teams for girls; there were no competitive teams with other schools. When my college boyfriend went to medical school, he was in a class of 100, with only 3 of the students women. In those days, there were very few female lawyers or veterinarians. The only gynecologists I ever saw were men, who embarrassed and humiliated me on several occasions.
My, have times changed! Now medical schools have many female students. Virtually all gynecologists are women. My son, an attorney, told me that there are many women working at his law firm in Manhattan. When my dog became seriously ill and need surgery, the female veterinarian told me that 85% of the students in veterinary school are now women! Hurray for America for evolving!
When I hitchhiked around northern Africa in the early ‘70’s (yes, I really did, with a male companion), I saw up close what it was like for women there. In Algeria, many wore white burqas, but in one town, Constantine, the women wore black burqas-- I was told this was a hold over from more than a thousand years ago due to the death of a prominent citizen. I wondered how they could stand the heat under their black robes and how uncomfortable they must be. In different towns, when women were seen in the streets at all, there were various styles of face coverings; some wore screens over their eyes, some had veils over their noses and mouths. When my friend and I had dinner with a Tunisian policeman, who had invited us back to his house, the women did not speak any French and they did not eat with us; rather, they ate on the floor of the kitchen along with the dogs. They hovered around me, exclaiming in Arabic and patting my hair-- apparently I was the first woman from outside that they had encountered.
Now back to Prime Minister’s article…
Valls states that the NY Times article paints a false picture of France as it purports that its position reflects intolerance. He views this as the opposite. France, he notes, is "the country of lights and of liberties." France is well aware of racism and the xenophobia that can occur there, and France aims to fight these relentlessly. Due to its geography, history and immigration, France has had a longstanding connection to Islam, and millions of its citizens of Muslim faith or culture respect their duties and enjoy their rights. Valls asserts that the NY Times article is one sided. The Muslim women interviewed express only one point of view and, therefore, the article did not allow for different perspectives or nuance in the analysis. The reporters should have also been required to interview examples from the vast majority of Muslim women who do not identify with an ultra-religious vision of Islam.
The NY Times article, Valls argues vigorously, portrays France as oppressing Muslim women and smothering their voice. Valls views this as far from the truth.
We must have open eyes to the growing influence of salafism, which contends that women are inferior and impure and that they must be sidelined. This was the question, absolutely not anecdotal, that was at the center of the debate around the burkini and the burqa. It is not an insignificant bathing suit. It is a provocation of radical Islam, which is emerging and wants to impose itself in the public space!There is a radical Islam movement that is taking place in France and at its center is the controversy over the burkini and the burqa. Valls attests that this initiative seeks to defy two of the fundamental principles of the country.
The first principle is the equality of men and women. Valls argues that a large number among the international press have hastily concluded that the French are attempting to stigmatize Muslim women for their dress and are acting against the freedom to practice their religion.
But come on! It is precisely for freedom that we are fighting. We are fighting for the freedom of women who should not have to live under the yolk of a chauvinist order. The female body is neither pure nor impure; it is the female body. It does not need to be hidden to protect against some kind of temptation. See the unbelievable reversal: in the cited accounts, the burkini is presented as a tool of women’s liberation! We can read the following there: “When the burkini first appeared, I was happy for my sister, who was on vacation and could finally play on the beach with her children rather than needing to stay in the shadows.” For another, to wear the veil signifies: “the reappropriation of the body and its femininity.” It is masculine domination that has been completely integrated here!The second principle being undermined is secularism. Valls stresses that the republican principles of France are liberty, equality, fraternity, and secularism. The latter is similar to the separation of church and state in the USA.
In France, we consider that a woman who wants to swim should not remain in the shadows. That woman cannot be the object of any domination. And it is certainly masculine domination when it is judged that a woman’s body should be removed from the public space.
We fight for the freedom of the majority of Muslims who do not identify with this proselyte minority who manipulate their religion. It is for this reason that the state should not yield one inch to radical Islam.
Secularism imposes a very clear separation between what belongs to the worldly and the spiritual. What does it mean with respect to justice? That the state and its civil servants are strictly neutral, that they do not identify with, finance, or privilege any religion… Secularism is that balance requiring mutual respect. A balance that is the guarantor of the cohesion of our society.This controversy will surely go on and on, in France as well as other countries. Valls at least has clarified another side of the argument and made a reasonable case for the government to have some say in dress code in public life. I suspect, unfortunately, that Valls’ stance will have less traction than the power of religion to control people’s lives. If women insist they want to be subjugated, it is a hard sell to force them to do otherwise. Other religions besides Islam surely weigh in on this matter, although perhaps less obviously when one is walking down the street or swimming at the beach. What about in the bedroom? Religion, tolerance and modernity often do not mix well. Religion, after all, is the suspension of logical belief. And the rationale that one’s views are the only ones that are right and should count. Just like politics!
The enemies of secularism seek to portray it as an instrument of discrimination and humiliation. Nothing could be more false. The barring of wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools concerns the kippa as much as the headscarf or the Catholic cross. Muslim women can wear the veil in daily life. But when they are civil servants, they must remove it while doing their work.
The conviction on which the French nation is based is that to have free and equal citizens, religion must fall under the private sphere… The French identity is a bond to want to share the same destiny. It is for this reason that radical Islam attacked us, in Paris, Nice, or Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
France will always defend reason and freedom of conscience in the face of dogma. We know that otherwise there is fundamentalism, and intolerance would prevail. France has set its heart on harboring modern Islam, true to its message of openness and tolerance. We protect our Muslim citizens against those who want to make scapegoats of them… We want… to make it resoundingly clear that Islam is compatible with democracy, secularism, and the equality of men and women. It is the most stinging blow that we can deliver to radical Islam, which aspires to only one thing: to set all of us against one another.