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Beyond the Veil | The Nation

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Beyond the Veil

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The last, and perhaps most disturbing, reason for the focus on the foulard is its sexual connotation. Commentators often contrasted Islamic tradition, which advocates the headscarf as a means of curbing women's "dangerous sexuality," and French culture, which "celebrates sex and sexuality as free of social and political risk." In reality, both Islamic Sharia and strict French laïcité produced gender systems that essentially deprived women of the right to dispose of their bodies as they wished. Indeed, in Islamic tradition, women are urged to be modest and to steer clear of tabarruj. This Arabic noun has its roots in the verb baraja, which means "to display" or "to show off," and the noun can be translated as something like "affectation." In A Season in Mecca, his narrative book about the pilgrimage, Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi uses the term "ostentation" to translate tabarruj, "the invariable term for a bearing that is deemed immodest or conspicuous, a hieratic stance." Similarly, the French law born out of strict definitions of laïcité warned schoolgirls about displaying "conspicuous" signs of religious affiliation. In short, the battle between the two modes of thinking was played out in women's bodies.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Facile explanations for the massacre must be resisted.

Tidy stories reducing the atrocity to a clash of civilizations or a problem with integration are neither enlightening nor satisfying.

The sexual argument against the foulard was common in France in 2003, although by that point the word "foulard" had all but disappeared from public discourse and was replaced by voile, or veil, which covers the entire face except for the eyes. This was erroneous but not entirely innocent, of course, because it made it possible for commentators to talk in terms of more general stereotypes of Muslim women in places like Yemen, where the veil is prevalent, rather than the reality of suburban Paris, where it is not. More recently, in an interview with a London-based newspaper, Bernard-Henri Lévy went as far as to say that "the veil is an invitation to rape." It is perverse to suggest that a woman is inviting rape by the way she dresses, but such is the extreme that Lévy will go to in order to preserve the idea of a homogeneous female European identity. In this view, a European woman is uncovered, and that signifies both her availability to the male gaze as well as her liberation.

It is interesting, too, that Lévy demands for himself that which he is not willing to give others. In 2004 he hired the designer Andrée Putman to renovate his vacation home in Tangier. The home lies next to the famous Café Hafa, whose regulars once included Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet, and which has unparalleled views of the Mediterranean. Patrons of the cafe can no longer enjoy an unobstructed view, however, because during the renovations Lévy constructed a wall around his terrace, where his wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, likes to sunbathe. Lévy reportedly wanted to protect her from the eyes of the men at the Café Hafa. Unveiling only goes one way, it seems.

There is in France today a pervading hypocrisy that invokes freedom of expression when cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo or France Soir offend Muslim sensibilities but remains stubbornly quiet when a Muslim woman's right to dispose of her body as she wishes is denied. This is the same hypocrisy that calls soccer star Zinedine Zidane a French citizen without any qualifications but refers to Zacarias Moussaoui as a French citizen of Moroccan origin. It is the same hypocrisy that organizes support committees for teachers in Flers who refuse to teach girls wearing the foulard but does not appear to care that 40 percent of French youths living in the largely impoverished and North African banlieues are unemployed. It is the same hypocrisy that celebrates the work of North African soldiers in the fight against the Nazis in World War II but until last year refused them the same army pensions as their French counterparts. It is the same hypocrisy that condemns humorist Dieudonné for his abhorrently racist remarks on Jews but condones former Le Point editor Claude Imbert when he says, "I am something of an Islamophobe and I'm not embarrassed to say so."

It is the same hypocrisy, finally, that expends boundless intellectual energy and enormous state resources on a small number of schoolgirls in headscarves but does next to nothing to ensure that these schoolgirls--most of whom are stuck in low-performing high schools designated as ZEPs (or zones d'éducation prioritaires)--gain access to the same educational and employment opportunities as their white compatriots. In the end, the successive controversies in France have served as fantastic distractions from real problems and have provided comfort and support to Islamic fundamentalists, who recruit Muslim youngsters by telling them that France does not want them. The foulard in France, therefore, is nothing more than a fig leaf; however long one stares at it, the eye will eventually have to face the nakedness of racism and discrimination.

To paraphrase another French philosopher: I do not approve of the headscarf, but I will defend to the death the right of women to wear it.

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