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Politics as Usual: France Gets Riled Up About a Candidate’s Headscarf

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This post was originally written for Muslimah Media Watch in 2010. I am reproducing it here for safekeeping as an author under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. It was also cross-posted at Altmuslimah. For reposts, you are kindly asked to also seek the permission of the MMW editorial team and credit that site accordingly. For trackbacks and links for citation, always use this link at MMW. In doubt, original credit should always point to Muslimah Media Watch.

Headscarves are the hot talking point in French politics again. But on this occasion, we aren’t talking about girls getting kicked out of high school or women getting kicked out of mayors’ offices.

No, the latest uproar comes about Ms. Ilham Moussaïd, a candidate from the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France’s upcoming regional elections who dares to “visually” identify herself as a Muslim and stand for election. Feminists and politicians are up in arms. While not the first candidate with a headscarf, the buzz around Moussaïd’s candidature is something new.

French media is having a field day (“A covered Muslim woman! In a public space!”), and is airing plenty of criticism against Moussaïd. The first criticism: a practicing member of a religion shouldn’t be a candidate for a left-wing party with roots in European socialism– anything else is showing off for the media. A member of the Parti Socialiste admonished the NPA’s leader, Olivier Besancenot, to go “reread Marx.” In the government, spokesperson and Education Minister Luc Chatel accused Besancenot of trying to “make himself interesting” (read: relevant), while the State Secretary for Families Nadine Morano called the candidacy “a media coup against Republican values.

The second criticism: Moussaïd’s veil is “anti-feminist.” European MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon says that, “You can’t call yourself a feminist while showing off a sign of submission to the patriarchy.” Government member Fadela Amara (who used to belong to French feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises), called the issue serious:

“I say to Olivier Besancenot that what he is doing is very serious because he is banalizing the veil and thus banalizing a tool of oppression of women… the veil, it’s not just ten centimeters of fabric, but the sign of a political plot, the oppression of women and the confiscation of women’s rights.”

Note that Amara does not address Moussaïd directly—only her party leader.

In that vein, the lone dissenting feminist voice in the established media comes from the opinion column in Le Monde and is signed by a series of women (including Karima Delli) connected to the Europe Ecologie, a rival party on the left. Some excerpts:

“In this case, everyone makes the veil say what Moussaïd doesn’t say. What this young lady says seems to barely interest all those who condemn her. In fact, her words do not have the right to belong. She is accused of wanting to say what she [doesn’t say at all].”

The reactions of Moussaïd’s own party provoked this statement from Besancenot:

“Our party welcomes the young, the unemployed, those with precarious employment, employees from all walks of life who see themselves in the ideals of [this] party. Faith is a personal question and would not be an obstacle to participation in our struggle so long as our party’s fundamental landmarks of secularism, feminism and anti-capitalism are sincerely shared.”

However, the NPA isn’t exactly clear on its “headscarf position”—should there even be one?—as one of its speakers, Pierre-François Grond, campaigned for the exclusion of a veiled girl from her high school outside of Paris in 2003. Furthermore, a few days after his original statement supporting Moussaïd, Besancenot was careful to backtrack during a meeting of the party’s national committee: “The headscarf is not only a visible religious symbol, but it is also an instrument of subjugation of women used in various forms and at various times by the three monotheistic religions, even if Ilham does not live it like this.” A colleague on the same list says that Moussaïd’s presence on the list shows that “in these neighborhoods, there are women like her, with or without a veil, who can take part in extreme-left politics. The face of French society has changed, and Ilham is one of the parts of this [new] social mix.”

Indeed, Moussaïd has already come out as pro-choice, and for contraception (among other “feminist” values of the French left). Her party credentials appear flawless—yet it’s the headscarf that everyone seems to be caught on.

Moussaïd’s presentation on the list for the upcoming regional election, while seemingly unremarkable, calls into question the French model of secularism both vis-à-vis the French left as well as in French society as a whole. French “laïcité,” as many scholars have noted, is “exclusive” (secularism means no religion, period). This is in contrast to American-style secularism, “religious freedom,” which is “inclusive” (no religion should be given priority). Both are used as founding myths for their respective societies.

Even the group Ni Putes Ni Soumises said as much, noting that Moussaïd’s candidacy could open the door for a more “open” interpretation of French secularism, which according to the group, is very bad because (echoing the words of their former leader Ms. Amara), the headscarf is a symbol of the “submission of women to men… illegal in the French Republic.”

What does Moussaïd herself say in the middle of all this?

“I am very sad to see eight years of my life reduced to my headscarf, I am very sad to hear that my personal belief is a danger to others while I advocate friendship, respect, tolerance, solidarity and equality for all human beings.”

In a media flurry of opinions, Moussaïd’s says it all.

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Author: Nicole Cunningham

American Expat and convert to Islam living and working between Lausanne and Zurich, Switzerland.

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