Letter From Paris
As it turns out, Belleville feels much like Brooklyn. From a Neapolitan-Tunisian-kosher cafe I watch men in yarmulkes, dreadlocks and Muslim crocheted caps pore over electrical goods that fell off the back of a truck while women, mostly bareheaded, walk by with their groceries. Omeyya Seddik, an activist with the Mouvement de l'Immigration et des Banlieues (part of a broad network of human rights, Muslim and feminist groups opposed to the new law) carefully explains the hijab ban in terms of the twin themes of French electoral debate: security (passionate project of the steely Sarkozy) and the notion of a French "identity crisis." He agrees that something has shifted lately among Muslims: "What's new is that there are more public, political expressions with an Islamic basis, and that some women are choosing to wear the hijab as a--vague--act of rebellion." But on the scattered attacks on synagogues (which peaked in 2002) he is a little defensive: "It's just violence; it's Clockwork Orange." For all his thoughtful honesty I get the sense that he, too, may be glossing over something; that militant fundamentalism in Europe tends to look either huge or insignificant, depending on where you stand.
I ask Nelcya Delanoe, a professor of American history at Nanterre and the daughter of a Moroccan independence activist, what she thinks. She tells me she's seen unofficial mosques multiplying in Paris, in living rooms and basements, attended by men with beards and women in black. Over the past two years women in strict Shiite hijab have begun to appear in her classes. As a feminist and a scholar of the Koran, she finds they make her uncomfortable; she invites them to lunch and talks to them about the choice they're making. "In Morocco," she says, "the imams were put in place by Hassan thirty years ago to destroy the left. Now he's gone, the left has been destroyed and there's no one to control the imams.... Here too, the left is gone; what we have now is Le Penism without Le Pen. I am against the ban and against the scarf. I just wish women didn't have to be a battlefield again."
Outside the Lycée Suger in the suburb of St. Denis, Samia, Rania and their friend--all 17--clearly don't want to be a battlefield. They say no one is for the law; they don't see why there's such a fuss about a piece of cloth. Rania has worn her scarf to school since she was 14; she accepts that when the law comes in she'll have to take it off. "This thing has fallen from the sky," she says, "because people are worried about Islam." Samia, in pinstriped trousers, corkscrew curls and kohl, butts in: "It's not a Muslim country--it's French--it's Christian." Christian? "Well, a teacher said, 'It's because of you that there's no pork in the canteen'--but there's fish every Friday."
Samia says she'll put on the hijab when she is married; she doesn't wear it now because she doesn't pray that way, and anyway you've got to enjoy your youth. She thinks some girls are forced to wear it by their parents; Rania shakes her head. Rania believes fifteen to twenty girls wear the hijab to school; Samia looks incredulous. They're comfortable disagreeing, but when a larger gaggle of bareheaded girls comes up, Rania withdraws a bit. Miriam is the only one who speaks out for the law, "because we're in a secular country, and we have to respect the country where we are. In Algeria French people can't go around in shorts and sandals. Wearing the veil marks people out as different. At school, we have to be on the same level. And besides, I want to see her lovely hair...." No one wants to argue. They joke instead, about wearing a cross on your front, a Star of David on your back and a veil on your head, about covering up bad hair, about whether I know Eminem.
When the others leave, Rania stays behind to walk me to the Metro. Away from them, she tells me that she wears the hijab not for protection against men but out of fear of God: "This life is nothing, nothing. When I go to the next life God will ask me lots of questions, and I will have to answer. When I have to take off my scarf because of the law, God will understand. But the people who made the law, he will punish them terribly." I see that for her the scarf marks and protects a feeling of difference that can't be easily named: She's quieter, more spiritual, less socially at ease; she's private; she's not North African but Indian. What politician has the right to deny her the expression she has chosen for her strengths and vulnerabilities? When she asks me what I will write in my article I tell her I'll say that the law is unjust, that the government has no right to tell people what to wear. But afterward I wish I'd also asked her why she feels her God to be so strict and punishing.
I think the French law is wrong because it makes schoolgirls the lightning rods for a sense of intolerable tension. A crisis about immigration, integration, poverty, political representation and the rise of a fundamentalist Islam (threatening above all to Muslims) is being played out across young women's lives. On one side is the state, with its long history of racism and its alienating language of prohibition. On the other are the imams preaching religion as bulwark and barricade against the West's injustices, hypocrisies and failures. The rhetoric of the war on terror draws the tensions tighter. Banning the hijab at school won't rescue girls from fundamentalist fathers or weaken the Islamists, who will exploit it as another instance of anti-Muslim prejudice. Instead, it weakens liberalism. Rather than teaching confidence in rational debate, the law suggests that France's Enlightenment values can't withstand the inroads of a militant religion. And to girls like Rania, who ought to be drawn in and given tools to question everything, it may teach only secrecy and alienation.