“France: A veiled debate”
By Yasmina Ben ari
After years of hypocrisy and delayed agenda France has had to face its’ first “Veil affair”. The big time story first occurred in November 1989. Since then, the veil has regularly been exposed as a front page story. During fall 2003, the question reached a climax when discussing the introduction of a law concerning the potential prohibition of “visible religious symbols” (i.e. the veil) in public schools.
Very soon many analysts saw the visual impact of the veil in a country still dealing with colonization guilt and an unclear position regarding the thousands of French Muslim immigrants. Relative ignorance about Islam opened the doors for self satisfying shortcuts. Asserting Muslim women as repressed and condemned to a life of resignation, that is, at home, somehow claimed legitimacy. The veil became the symbol of various statements regarding secularity – at least in its’ French version. Republican and secular values were used to stigmatize the veil, and the thousands of French Muslim women wearing it.
Since 2003 the debate has been ongoing, only interrupted by short international breaking news. From newspapers such as Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation… to lifestyle magazines and the coloured press, the veil was everywhere. But what about the inner reasons for such a fad?
In a country that may not have dealt with its religious past, and certainly not with Islam itself, passionate positions, in the media, as in the streets, have shown the deep questioning the veil implies. The question of the veil – referred to as Islamic - therefore seems to cross the entire French society. By many still looked upon as an external cultural reference though, however worn by French citizens. The veiled debate seems to destabilize as it questions French identity from within.
When Muslim Arabic immigrants in the seventies were invited to work, it was not foreseen that they were going to stay. Since then, some kind of ad hoc arrangement arose. Making living together possible for everybody, without having to mix up too much. As a somewhat ostrich strategy, this avoided discussions of the real challenges. Being a French citizen seemed to go along with a one way acceptance of French so-called identity.
But how does the relation to “the other” evolve in a country often unable to deal with differences whatever they may be? Sadly enough the debate has often turned short, associating the veil with altogether immigration, fundamentalism, secularity, and feminism.
In this manner, the French women’s magazine, Marie-Claire, chose to treat “the veil: a visible sign of oppression” as cover story, in its edition of April 2004. It reviewed the veil through the testimonies of “five women of muslim culture, either famous intellectuals or artists ”. Choosing five artists of the Arabic and Muslim world to testify about the veil’s repressive role in a different geo-political context, i.e. France, seems not only biased but also awkward.
The reference is clearly a cultural one, questioning the “origins” of a religious sign in order to influence the terminology of the debate. These women “accepted to pose with the veil, choosing a symbolic gesture”. One wears it as a gag, another one burns it… It is not as such the set up that questions but what lies underneath. Old stereotypes or alleged theories widely spread in France were given a second breath. Editorial staff of Marie Claire has chosen to banish the veil and use the legitimacy of those actors to say it out loud, leaving out the fact that these five women are stating different logics from other parts of the world, far away from the French controversy.
As many other attempts to analyse the French veiling, Marie Claire’s point of view is far from being the most ignorant and aggressive one. A recent organisation for the freedom of Muslim French girls living in the suburbs, provocatively called “Neither Prostitutes nor Submitted” (NPNS), is a clear example of French essentialism. It was created in early 2003, after the brutal deathly burning of young Sohane whose “mistake” was to date a young man from another “community”. Based in a violent French suburb, the NPNS lost its legitimacy when trying to convey some kind of universal message about the veil as a whole. It is a fact that some suburbs, mainly because abandoned by state, have become dangerous places for women. When not wearing the veil, they become easy targets for frustrated and uneducated youngsters.
France has faced, and still does, an important amount of group rapes. “Tournantes”, as called in French, consists in young girls being “passed on” between a group of guys. Considered to be of small moral value just because they are unveiled, they suffer hell. Not to mention the state’s arrogance and family’s shame. In that context, the veil has become a social line between “pure” and “impure” girls. Now, is it the veil itself we are talking about here?
Well, the NPNS organisation decided to send volunteers into mosques in order to tell the girls they should not veil themselves, with the argumentation of it being an effective act of submission to masculine order. Founder of the organisation, Mrs. Fadela Amara, has recently been invited by the government and accepted to play an obscure legitimating role. Whatever good intentions may be behind, putting Islamophobic words and conceptions in the mouth of women stemming from post colonisation immigration, is not the way forward.
The above shows some clear examples of a debate being misused and misunderstood for the benefit of those who claim that Islam is a globalising and conservative conception of life in society. Implying that by essence, women are persecuted within and by the use of Muslim values, wherever they may arise and interact. Moreover, there is no such thing as “A veil”. Hijab, Niqab and many others, show the plurality of such an object that needs, more than any other, to be contextualised, deconstructed and thought through a frame of tolerance. We need tolerance for the million of French Muslim desperately trying to get a grip of their identity in a context of universalising “French” values. The only solution is the opening of a real dialogue about the internal development of French secularity, where France doesn’t loose what is indeed the most important issue here, its mixed culture. Meanwhile, France has to allow a range of multiple French identities to come out.
Yasmina Ben ari