Letter From Paris

Letter From Paris

In the form of a law regarding the wearing of the Islamic hijab, women’s bodies are a battlefield–again.


For several months now France has been obsessed with an item of women’s clothing. The garment in question is not the skimpy lingerie modeled in a Paris Metro ad by a pubescent girl (paedophilie publicitaire, scolds the graffiti) but the Islamic hijab, increasingly in vogue among French Muslim women.

To Americans and Britons used to a more laissez-faire approach to multiculturalism, the French Parliament’s recent vote (by 494 to 36) to ban the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools may seem perverse. (The ban will apply to yarmulkes and large crucifixes as well as the hijab, but no one is taken in by this apparent evenhandedness.) Yet similar laws are being discussed in Belgium and the Netherlands; Germany’s highest court has ruled that states can ban teachers from wearing the hijab; and in Luton, near London, a 15-year-old Muslim girl is hiring lawyers because she can’t go to school in her jilbab, a long robe she feels expresses her spiritual commitment. Europe’s anxieties about immigration and a spreading Islamic revival have found a rich metaphor in this polymorphous piece of cloth, which can be read at once as a cover for inaccessible mysteries, an assertion of Islamic identity or an instrument of women’s oppression.

The French law is meant to protect the republican principle of laïcité, a strict form of secularism established after bitter struggles at the beginning of the last century to keep the Catholic Church out of politics. Nearly everyone agrees that laïcité must be preserved–including most of the far right, who take the Catholic jihadi Joan of Arc as figurehead for their anti-immigrant campaign. At a moment of perceived crisis, it is a powerful rallying cry. Exactly what the crisis is depends on whom you ask.

France’s Muslims, most of them children of its colonial adventures in North Africa, make up about 7 percent of the population; no government has challenged the racism that keeps so many of them in the wind-swept, highrise suburbs (the banlieues) on the margins of the cities. A second-generation Algerian is three to four times more likely to be unemployed than a "native" French person; schools in the banlieues are bleak and badly funded, experienced by teachers and students as the front line of confrontation. The rise of the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen is one consequence of this: President Jacques Chirac, who was re-elected in 2002 on the back of Le Pen’s success against the Socialists, is mindful both of his debt to his onetime ally and of the threat he represents. (Le Pen is cleverly against the hijab ban, on the grounds that it will help the immigrants blend in.) From the other side, French Muslims are beginning to demand political representation. There are no North African deputies in the French National Assembly and only seven on local and regional councils. A few days after the headscarf vote, a group of Maghrebis from Chirac’s own party threatened to quit politics because they are so underrepresented on the lists for March’s regional elections. Meanwhile, as in the rest of Europe, more Muslims are choosing to express their identity through an Islamic consciousness, religious or political or both. Teachers have complained about requests from Muslim girls to be excused from biology, PE or co-ed swimming; anger with Israel has morphed into anti-Semitism in the schoolyard and the street. And there’s an election coming, with Chirac’s close ally Alain Juppé convicted in a corruption scandal and his tough law-and-order interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, increasingly setting the agenda.

In spite of all this, I went to Paris unsure what I thought about the hijab ban. My instincts were against it, because it infringes personal freedom; it stigmatizes Muslims; it will keep girls who choose the scarf from experimenting and give it the glamour of forbidden fruit; it may push those forced to wear it into religious schools. Besides, it seems absurd to legislate how teenagers should dress. But viewed from Britain, where the government would like more faith-based schools, laïcité seems worth defending tooth and claw. And, from the outside (maybe the inside, too), the difference between a headscarf worn by choice and one put on because a parent or imam insists isn’t always easy to discern.

In Britain, Muslim women say that the hijab liberates them (from men’s predatory gaze, from sexism, from the pressures of consumer culture); that it keeps them mindful of their spiritual journey; that it expresses an identity they feel is under threat; or simply that it’s part of who they are. But at a small demonstration in London against the French law, among the students and solicitors arguing for tolerance and democracy, I also met a veiled child of 9 who said that women wear the hijab "so men don’t look at us because of our looks, so we don’t have people stealing parts of our bodies." The women of the Islamic Forum Europe were kept separate from the men, who told them where to stand and what to chant. Azam Kamguian, who was tortured in Iran and chairs the Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East, argues that the French ban will give such women a vital hijab-free space–that it is the Islamists who suppress freedom of dress, and that veiling children takes away their childhood: "I hate this multiculturalism, this ghettoizing. It’s reverse racism in the guise of respect. It’s patronizing."

At the Holiday Inn on the Place de la République, under the secular gaze of the statue of Marianne, Kamguian’s friend Samia Labidi agrees. According to a poll reported in The Economist, 49 percent of Muslim women in France favor the ban, as do some prominent feminists and most of the left, apart from the Greens and some Communists. Several Muslim women joined a petition supporting the law in Elle magazine; Labidi says women like these are the silent majority, marginalized by media that feed on conflict and ethnic stereotypes. Raised in Tunisia, she wore the hijab from the age of 10, when her sister’s fundamentalist husband brought religion into the family. She remembers how hard it was to take it off: "The veil completely changes the way you feel. You act differently. It’s not a detail."

Labidi believes fervently in a secular, integrated Muslim community as the only barrier against the Islamism she says is spreading like wildfire. She is furious with the government for setting up, last year, the French Council of the Muslim Religion to represent North Africans (and to contain Muslim aspirations): In contravention of laïcité, the council is a state-funded religious body elected through the mosques. But though she speaks from personal experience and has published a book about her brother’s life among the fundamentalists, I can’t quite trust the panic in her vision of Islamist revolutionaries fanning out through France. She tells me she doesn’t choose to speak in the banlieues; when I name the neighborhood I’m going to next she warns me that it’s full of Islamist bookshops and purveyors of Mecca Cola, the brand that gives some profits to Palestinian charities.

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.

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