Wednesday, July 01, 2009


‘But Frances, what exactly were you so upset about last night ? ask Fausto kindly. ‘Huh?’ ‘One minute you were drinking your beer, the next minute you were shouting like a crazy person.’ Ah yes. Sarkozy, of course. We were sitting by the Loire on a rug, drinking cans of Braubergen and watching the river flow past. Enrique asked me what I thought about Sarkozy’s latest cheeky little sound-bite on the burka; I saw red. It took me a long time to work out where I stand on the subject of Muslim women’s dress for two reasons. One is that I grew up in a very Muslim area and went to school with Muslim girls- there I learnt to look at the person behind the headscarf. You have to learn, because on a purely personal level someone with their face covered can be slightly –slightly!- daunting. It’s not very hard, though.

In year 9, maybe year 10, half of my school friends began to cover their hair, and a handful started coming to school in head-to-toe black. At the same time I dressed mostly in trousers with holes in them and baggy men’s jumpers. We didn’t make an issue of it. The other reason is that I’m not keen on organised religion and wholeheartedly reject most of the major religions’ customs and rituals. ‘Because God tells me to (through any of His mysterious channels)’ cuts no mustard with me as a reasoning device. In fact, I would rather people didn’t wear the burka, but I would also prefer people not to wear Crocs, especially the trendy new ones in the shape of Mary-Janes, and am often slightly offended by white pedal-pushers, especially in conjunction with white sleeveless shirts. That’s my opinion. I don’t share these opinions with every girl who passes me in the street because my father taught me that my right to swing my fist ends where the other person’s face begins. Also, I don’t care that much.

Nicolas Sarkozy has no such reservations, and declared last week in a carefully calculated profile-raising broadcast that ‘The burka is not welcome in the territory of the (French) Republic.’ Super. The man’s simultaneously liberating women and integrating Muslims. Or is he in fact hiding an attack on women in general behind an attack on French people of African and Asian descent? The way people –or, in fact, women- choose to cover their bodies is not a matter for government intervention. Maybe the burka, more and more evident in Western Europe these days, is a symptom of a malaise within Muslim communities, but it should not be a symbol of this malaise. You don’t solve people’s problems by making an issue out of women’s sartorial choices, however misguided. You don’t make people’s lives better by dealing in symbols. ‘It’s not a religious sign, it’s a sign of servitude, of abasement,’ continued Sarko. Well, in that case, there is either a problem of the servitude and abasement of women or there is not. I would argue that there is, and that this problem is not by any means limited to Muslim communities, although I am convinced that it is a serious problem within them, especially among the poor. How do we challenge the second-class status of women, whatever their religion and ethnic origin? By making them change the way they display their bodies?

 Laurie Penny made some excellent points on the same subject- ‘One of the few things that nearly all nations have in common is ideological control over women's bodies as political territory.’ These days, middle-class white women would probably not stand for such an open attack on the way they choose to dress (although all of us are of course constantly being judged by our clothing and our bodies in barely disguised attacks by the media). Muslim women have perhaps less opportunity to resist such an onslaught, which makes it even more ironic that they should be presented as powerless under the pressure of Muslim men- what’s the difference between a woman’s husband telling her what to wear and Nicolas Sarkozy doing the same?

I really love two things about French society, though neither is problem-free. The secular state, and its insistence on keeping religion out of schools, jobs and government, is brilliant. The attitude that if you want to be French you must love France makes sense to me too. Maybe we could replace our bullshit citizenship test (The British Citizenship Test claims that Father Christmas comes from the North Pole- at some point I will write an entire blog on what this means for British society) in the UK with one question - ‘Are you prepared to try to love the place you live? (Often, people with immigrant backgrounds seem to be among the few who really do love the UK.) Of course, the all-encompassing nature of the officially-sanctioned view of French identity leaves very little room for manoeuvre. (Digression: An English social geographer I spoke to last year described his research into migration to France and England from the West Indies. He asked for statistics relating to Jamaicans moving to London and was given the figures he needed. When he asked the French authorities for similar information he was told that the French government did not concern itself with French citizens who chose to move from the French domain of Martinique to the French domain of Ile-de-France. ‘What are the problems involved with this kind of migration?’ he asked. ‘There are no problems,’ came the reply. ‘So we keep no records.’)

However, loving your country has very little to do with your personal beliefs on other matters, and secularism has nothing to do with repression, until politicians decide to use it as such. (I had to read Rousseau this year, but no catchy quotes spring to mind, which you will understand if you too have ploughed through Du contrat social. Or maybe I’m a moron. Anyway.) ‘We are not threatened by clericalism,’ continued Sarko. ‘We are threatened by a form of intolerance which stigmatises all religious participation.’ (Intolerance by whom, exactly?) Well-said, but what’s that got to do with the way someone dresses? Yes, there is a school of Muslim fundamentalism that works by putting women in a lower position than men, but in a society which claims to have laws in place to protect gender equality, there is scope to change this.

 Where existing laws can’t protect women’s right to equality, let’s make some new laws. Let’s try and get poor people living in the cités (urban areas with majority social housing, think La Haine), whether Muslim or not, whether men or women, into better jobs, better education, better social statuses. Let’s get more help for vulnerable women and women who are financially or emotionally reliant on men. Let’s help women (and men) who are victims of physical and psychological abuse. This is the road to better integration for French and immigrant Muslims, and the road to a France where it’s easy to love your country. Do this, and it wouldn’t surprise me if fewer women wanted to wear the burka. And if they don’t, who cares? Ideas for how to stop people wearing Crocs on a postcard please. Fausto nods. ‘You seem a bit calmer today, though.’


Sarah said...

This must be the first time I have ever read your blog and agreed with what you have to say! What is happening to the world? I am a little bit afraid to think about what that means Sarko is doing...

problemshelved said...

No! Sarah agrees with me- I must be losing my touch! Vive la revolution!!!

See you soon xxx

Sicily said...

"At the same time I dressed mostly in trousers with holes in them and baggy men’s jumpers. We didn’t make an issue of it."

This is the same school at which I was bullied and harrassed, had my bike and possessions vandalised and was repeatedly called a slut for wearing a skirt above the knee. I agree that the headscarf ban is essentially a fascist move, but at the same time I don't think our school is the best example of equality and secularity in action.

sic_transit said...

YES. You make sense to me. I miss you. I want you in my life soon .