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Why yes, I do think the French model of laïcité is bullshit and no, you won’t change my mind by insulting my intelligence

A good article in the blogosphere lately  (HT Stephanie) got me thinking again about laïcité , the form of legal Islamophobia the French want to pretend has been part of their culture and society since time immemorial.  I’m not buying what the French are selling, laïcité is a giant load of crap, and nothing anyone can ever say in defense of the subject will change my mind about how utterly horrible, misguided and wrong laïcité is as it is practiced in France.  I don’t care if you call me stupid, you should care that you are a bigot if you think laïcité is awesome and I am publicly judging you. Why don’t I like it?

1. I think it is veiled (tee hee, a hijab joke, I’m so punny) “racism” masking as Islamophobia. It’s not pc any more to say you don’t like Arabs or Black people, but you can attack the religion of some of them and still feel smug in your white mainstreamness. I’m not the only one who says this.  Laïcité now is what the “integration” arguments were in the 80s and 90s. Same discourse, but this time it is about attacking Islam.

2. A lot of people equate laïcité with being anti-hijab and anti-Islam insofar as DERP ISLAM HATES WOMEN or something. I   think people who call themselves feminists should accept that their sisters in “womanity” have different ways of practicing feminism and that just because one of your sisters doesn’t agree with you 100% of the time, you still don’t have a reason to pull her feminist card.  I think it is intellectually irresponsible to base your logical argument on either the assumption that a woman who choses to veil is misguided, or that a woman can only call herself a Muslim feminist if she doesn’t wear one.

3. Laïcité doesn’t make people more equal, the only thing equal about it is all believers are at the same level when it comes to state-enforced atheism.  Muslim women suffer under it the most but in reality anyone who chooses to practice a religion gets screwed.  Again, a lot of proponents of anti-veil discourse try to say that not having a veil means women are liberated and don’t have to listen to men any more, but they discount choices freely made by women. It is demeaning to think that everyone who wears a veil is either “misguided as to the true nature of Islam because [insert pundit here] said it wasn’t necessary” in the book you read or because her father or brother made her do it.

My favorite is when the trolls come out and say Muslims disrespect other believers as if that is a reason to sign on to laïcité .  I believe in freedom for all religions. Dude wants to wear a pasta strainer on his head? LOVE IT. My Christian friend wants to homeschool her kids? When can she teach me?  Sikh dude needs his knife? Bring it. Don’t ascribe to me feelings towards other religions.  A close second to that is being told that I haven’t read enough shite French “intellectuals” have put out to truly have the knowledge necessary to have an opinion.  I don’t need to pick up and touch a steaming pile of cow dung to know that it is, in fact, cow dung.

I’m a proponent of secularism, when it means secularism is the only way to give each religion equal footing. When I was in high school- a state-funded public high school in the state of Lousiana- our principal at the time “got saved” and decided we needed to have a moment of prayer each morning.  I would have been cool with that except for the fact that around Ramadan time, one of the sole Muslim students there (who wasn’t practicing but wanted to test what Principal Jerkwad would say) asked if he could have ten minutes out of class to pray asr.  OF COURSE NOT. But we could spend ten minutes in the morning doing Christian stuff in our public school.

The problem with French laïcité however, is that it creates inequality. You aren’t allowed to believe anything, but Christmas is still holiday, no one can touch all the ponts in May, and oh noes, not Pentecost or Assumption. Meanwhile Muslim women can’t even walk in the street, much less work or go to school.  You can twist that all you want, but Muslim women are the ones who suffer under laïcité and to maintain the fiction that laïcité  actually protects them or anyone else is foolish and dangerous.

But of course, far be it from any Muslim to say that. Any time any Muslim says anything about laïcité , it turns into an argument about how we want to create a khalifah in Europe, how we aren’t intellectually sophisticated enough to understand what laïcité  REALLY means, or that we are stuck in a victim cycle where we think everything is about us.

What is really going on is that I am absolutely tired- tired of the Caroline Fourests and the Manuel Valls of this world, tired of being treated like a demented child for choosing a religion, tired of having to constantly listen to the same old trite memes about Islam from ignorant bigots who think they are smart.


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J’adore Chador: Majida Khattari’s Art

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.

Le Monde, France 24 and Le Nouvel Observateur covered Franco-Moroccan artist Majida Khattari’s Parisian runway show/art exhibit in April. Her show was titled “VIP” (for Voile islamique parisien) and took place at Paris’ Cité Universitaire. The show was atypical of Parisian shows in its choice of subject: a series of veils.

Her choice of subject isn’t by accident. Since 1996, Khattari’s work has in some way related to veils of all kinds–and now, in the middle of the debate over France’s proposed “burqa ban,” her art is more relevant than ever. The show included patchwork veils, a burqa imprinted with the portrait of the wearer, a naked woman and a veiled woman on the same stage.

Khattari’s work plays on the ambiguity and ambivalence of the French public to all sorts of coverings. By adopting slogans adapted from marketing campaigns (the one in the title is a take-off on “J’adore Dior”) and putting veils front and center in her shows, she moves the debate out of politics and into the realm of art, which seems to be much more palatable to French people.

In France24, Khattari explains the reasoning behind her burqa-as-runway show: “I find that every time there is a crisis, the female body takes a hit, and I can’t help but ask myself questions about this phenomenon.” After this, the English and French versions of the France24 article differ: the French-language article has another quote from Khattari: “But the reality of the imprisonment of women’s bodies is not only related to the headscarf.” But the English-language article adds an explanatory phrase to this quote, just in case we weren’t clear before: “The artist was careful to point out that religion is not the only source of oppression of women.” (my emphasis) While it is a minor point of translation and doesn’t change the world of the article, why add it? My guess is that the headscarf debate is so common in French, people are used to headscarves being a visible part of the public debate, whereas in the English-speaking countries like the U.S. and the U.K., the headscarf debate isn’t a big deal, but religious freedom is.

Le Monde is quick to point out that Khattari is a “Muslim who never wore the veil,” and got another nice sound-bite out of the article about how she views the place of her work within the public debate. “More than the headscarf issue, the real problems are those of education for both young Muslims and some non-Muslims who are ignorant of the culture of the other. Furthermore, the attacks go back again and again to women. Women should be free to do what they want.”

You can also go to Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws to see photos of the show. This link contains images of nude models. The dozen or so comments on the post relate mainly to the nude models, with one commenter rightly mentioning that if you “combine veils with anything sensual or stimulating, the whole debate would be over.”) This was exactly the point of Khattari’s 2007 piece “Sexy Souks,” where the burqa-clad models wore frilly undergarments bought in Middle Eastern markets underneath their coverings.

In France (and Belgium for that matter, who recently became the first European country to enact a full face veil ban) it seems so easy to look at the veil as art, especially performance art (as was the case for my Un Voile article).

My question is, what do art shows really add to the debate? Is this the type of coverage that will make French people change their minds about head coverings?

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Bérengère Lefranc’s “Un voile, Un certain moi de juin”

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 Muslim Voices. 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 still always point to Muslimah Media Watch.

Un voile, Un certain moi de juin is the story of French artist Bérengère Lefranc’s decision to wear a “burqa” (although she hesitates to define it as such) for one month and write about it. I was skeptical about this book after reading an initial review of it in Swiss daily Le Temps. Not normally a fan of these “Let’s play dress up” stories, I set out to read the book anyway. Already, the title bothers me. ”Voile” is “veil” in French, and the garment Ms. Lefrance wears most closely resembles a burqa. It seems that for the French, veils and burqas are pretty much the same thing (or maybe, that was Ms. Lefranc’s point).

The premise is simple: she is going to wear a burqa for one month. The only person—male or female—allowed to see her without is her boyfriend Hubert.

She takes great pains to insist she isn’t trying to be “Muslim”- that her journey is about her art, about covering herself up. ”I didn’t want to slip into the skin of a Muslim, rather, I wanted to hide gracefully from the looks of others. And continue to live normally.” (p. 135) She even shies away from defining her gown as a burqa.

However, the comparisons to Islam and Muslim women are inevitable, something even she is resigned to. Her female friends even encourage her to “take it off” around them, noting that Muslim women don’t wear their veils around other women.

And if it wasn’t clear enough that she wasn’t doing this to “be Muslim,” she mentions several episodes where she is either smoking or drinking while fully burqa-fied–although she was refused a glass of white wine once because “ladies in burqas aren’t supposed to drink.” She tells the bartender she isn’t Muslim. He tells her in return: “When women are forced to wear it because they have no choice, that is respectable. But if [you are wearing it] for other reasons, well you’re just making fun of women.” (p. 95) Lefranc was rightfully scandalized: here was a man trying to tell her not only what she should wear, but how she should feel about it.

Lefranc uses the “I’m not a Muslim argument” as a defense when the going gets too tough. In stores and in shops, she seems quick to insist that what she is doing is an “experiment.” This is evident in the beginning of the book, where her first trick is to go vote. Since you can’t vote in France if your face isn’t visible, she has a proxy made for her boyfriend, yet still accompanies him to the voting location.

Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), the fact that it is an “experience” makes it “okay” by some French people in a way a burqa worn for religious reasons would not pass. In fact, the officials were all smiles when she showed up to vote. What Lefranc does is acceptable because it is art, but what a Muslim woman wears is not acceptable because it is religion. Something even she refers to when she mentions on page 135 (cited above) that she wanted to live normally under her “burqa”, but found that “living normally” was impossible with such a “religious image.”

To be fair, Lefranc goes through a lot of what I went through when I first put on the veil in France (which is likely similar to a lot of places): incomprehension, stares, accusations of provocation. I found myself even sympathizing with her as the book progressed. I even thought towards the end that she “got it.” She was like the new convert little sister, all covered up and guns blazing, ready to go.

The spectrum of emotions she felt under the burqa was not dissimilar to those any person adopting a new lifestyle feel. Like her, when I first started wearing the veil, I didn’t want to go outside. It was easier to stay inside than deal with the drama of people’s looks, the weather, even just putting an outfit together. Likewise, when she took it off at the end of the month, she too had trouble with people looking at her body, saying that the way people looked at her, especially her décolleté, “made her want to scream.” (p. 127)

The strangest bit was her rather frank descriptions of her sex life and her relationship with Hubert, which too seemed to change. She blamed this change on the distance the veil created, even though he was the only one to see her without it. That was the only part of her diary I felt contrived and out of place because it called her intimacy into question. She wonders in the beginning of the book if her boyfriend’s look will “be enough,” as if somehow we thrive on being looked upon by others. Could he carry this burden himself? (p. 14)

And while I enjoyed her openness, her ability to criticize herself, and her honesty, one passage at the end of the book made me realize that she didn’t get it at all. And this after one month of “walking in our shoes” and three days after the end of her “experiment,” she writes: “I think about these women who wear the veil, by choice or by obligation. What is their life that the response is [the veil]? What faith pushes [them] to choose darkness over light?” (p. 151)

For me, Un voile was better than your typical clichéd “let’s wear a burqa” news story, but falls short in its final analysis.

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

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.