Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On the Secular & Sacred in France (30 DPC: Day 17)

Day 17: A Picture of Something You Recently Received in the Mail

I came up with this prompt dually to show you the adorable little ducky my Mom sent with her last care package as a preemptive Easter gift and in reference to some letters I hopefully will be receiving this summer from my friends at school. Thank you mom! I love it so much, especially the enormous daisy in its hand :)

And speaking of Easter (don’t you just love vague but functional transitions?)…

In my French language lab today we were speaking about religion. Of course I had to blog about my thoughts on this class, because no religion argument goes un-blogged, apparently. As you may or may not know, in France there has within the last year been a ban on women wearing a niqab. Also called a burqa in English, this style of wearing a headscarf/veil is an emblem of faith for certain women within the Muslim faith. The French government passed a law decreeing the wearing of a burqa to be illegal and any woman wearing one must pay a fine of 150 Euros.

The law was passed with three main intentions:
1.     For “Security,” so that people (not necessarily Muslims) don’t disguise themselves under a Burqa while committing a crime.
2.     Because wearing the head-to-toe veil is seen as a violation of women’s rights and therefore the government took it upon themselves to “liberate” these women by decreeing it illegal.
3.     To promote universal public secularism.

The religious attire ban has extended beyond the Islamic tradition. French president Nicola Sarkozy has now pushed legislation through that deems any sign of a religious affiliation or faith to be illegal in state schools. This tactic is to make the burqa ban appear as if part of a larger movement towards the complete separation of church and state, but also to “unify” the citizenship of France. In the words of my language lab leader (a native Frenchwoman) “The citizen comes before all else in France under this law.”

As already evidenced, this is a complex issue that even on the surface appears to be convoluted with alternative motives. And I am incredibly frustrated by the entire premise of the law.

As you may have surmised, I am a person of faith. Not one faith, but of faith. And any act that infringes on personal liberty and inclinations to ANY religion (or lack thereof!) I perceive to be a gross injustice. These laws ideally are meant to separate church and state, a principal I think extremely important and crucial to running any nation with multiple religions represented among the population. But even John Locke, the famed Western philospher and proponent of what would become the Establishment Clause in the American Constitution said no law could be made that infringed on religious liberty.

If, by the unilateral removal of religious emblems in all schoolchildren, unity were to be achieved, it would be a sense of unity rooted in falsehood. Community is about people coming together, bringing with them all of their personal baggage (good and bad) and sticking together because of and in spite of differences. Part of your belief in the divine (in whatever manifestation) or profession that there is no such thing defines who we are in some capacity. If a true community is to be promoted, it must be one where crucial elements of ourselves are open and accepted. This doesn’t mean religion has to be in governmental policy, but it does mean that in order for a country to be run fairly for all citizens there must be recognition that all citizens have diverse faith practices and beliefs. Therefore the outlawing of wearing religious accessories and outfits is promoting a false sense of being clones, not community members.

Furthermore, the French government has stated that their intent with these laws is to ensure liberty for all women. But in the act of mandating liberty the French government is only creating a new kind of oppression. And in banning the burqa, one is assuming that all women who wear a hijab/burqa/niqab are forced to do so. This is absolutely not true.

Yes, many women all over the world are forced to be covered head to toe, either directly by the government or family or by cultural expectations. But just as many women wear the burqa (or some variation) freely out of choice and devotion to God. No, there is no dictation in the Qur’an that demands women be covered. But neither does it say in the Bible that one should wear a cross on a necklace. It’s a matter of personal preference. And in the past it’s even been a sign of solidarity and revolution; in Indonesia in the 1980s many women wore the burqa freely while their Muslim faith was being attacked. And Islam is an enormously wide-spread religion, meaning that the reasons women wear or choose not to wear burqas are as varied as the cultures from whence they come.

This law is a very bad quick-fix to an enormous issue concerning women’s rights within religion. And many women and men in France are retaliating against this law with satygraha and nonviolent protest. Backed by investors with cash to spare, these women are continuing to wear their religious garments regardless of the fines and arrests many have and are facing.

And most especially, they who are creating these laws have very little true undertanding of the Islamic faith. Furthermore, the kind of oppression and objectification women face more often on a universal scale is manifested in the expectations of being thin, great at sex, aesthetically hot, and maternal. As Martha Nussbaum[i] so eloquently explained in her article from the New York Times,

“… the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects.  Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture.  And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery?  Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants.  Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices.  Indeed, they often participate in them.  And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty.  Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy.  The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty. [bold added]

 So not only do these impositions from the government claim to be for liberation, they also prolong religious intolerance and are rooted in fear. The ban of the burqa is in no way an effort to combat objectifying women. It’s a lashing out against a group of people in France who represent a misunderstood minority. This fear-based law not only creates a false sense of unity, but one that instills fear of difference and uniquity among its people.

And as for the safety aspect of the law, Professor Nussbaum outlines quite articulately why demanding one’s face to be uncovered all the time is highly unpractical:

“…these arguments… are applied inconsistently.  It gets very cold in Chicago – as, indeed, in many parts of Europe.  Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths.  No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated.  Moreover, many beloved and trusted professionals cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, (American) football players, skiers and skaters. What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering.”

And besides, the actual population of women who wear the full burqa is a minimal 2000. While the Muslim population is far greater, the entire crisis began over one law oppressing an extreme minority in the country.

These laws are completely unjustified and grounded in fear. I am infuriated by the French government's actions and think the laws should be removed, and immediately. They are not fighting for women's rights or to promote religious tolerance; in fact, in their actions they are doing quite the opposite. Under this fa├žade no liberty can be achieved for any person of faith or atheist. 

If you are curious as to my main sources for this post (or if you would like to read more on the issue) here are some excellent materials for reading:

[i] Who, I might add, is Mount Holyoke College’s commencement speaker this year. 

current jam: "pictures at an exhibition: the great gate of kiev" mussorgsky-stokowski
best thing in my life right now: wool socks
days until departure: 52

1 comment:

  1. Wow... I had no idea this had happened, and am pretty shocked. Thank you for sharing, Lizzie.