Thursday, July 17, 2008

Epic Veil

As usual, I only hear about one of the “big news stories” in France from the American press. Okay, apparently, a French guy went to Morocco in 2000 and married a woman who came to live in France in what the couple assumes is the style of Muslim women in Muhammad’s time: wrapped head to toe, completely subservient to the husband, not voting, and so forth. Social services reports that she lived in "total submission to her male relatives". Ah, the good old days! As with most cultural retroversion, I’m guessing that many of these “traditions” are largely imagined. Didn’t Khadijah work? Who voted in the Middle Ages? How do you eat pastries in a veil anyway?

So, a French court has told her that she can’t become a citizen, probably due to that pastry thing. The French people are largely at ease with the ruling: polls show widespread support in France. One has to remember that the Revolutionary tradition is still very strong here and I think many take this as a triumph of secularism over superstition. While the American Revolution wasn’t really related to religion, the French Revolution included a strong struggle with the Catholic Church, one of the pillars of the Ancien Régime. I’m not sure it’s ever been resolved.

Americans might see this as a triumph over les Musulmans, but I’d be careful with that thinking. Americans and French are very different on religious ideas. In America, calling yourself an “atheist” seems to suggest to people that you’re a nihilist, whereas in France, it basically means that you’re a freethinker. Many Americans would have a problem with this family’s Islamic faith; for the French, it’s more a matter of “fanaticism”. If one has religious beliefs- and there still are many Catholics here- it’s important that they be very private and very mild. I get the feeling that they are French first and Catholic second; whereas most American Christians are much the reverse.

I actually read about this story from one of our sisters of perpetual grievance over at Feministing who chose to focus on the ethnocentrism of it all, writing: "It appears that no matter how many times Muslim women talk about how their religious choices may not always be directly connected to their experiences with patriarchy, no one listens."

Um, yes, it's weird of people to assume that a young woman "living in complete submission to her male relatives" might have something to do with... um, patriarchy. Glad there are feminists to stand up for her "feminist" choice of... uh, living in complete subservience to her male relatives! (Yes, Virginia, the entire world has gone crazy.)

But, as always, I’m of two minds on this ruling. On the one hand, if the country makes “assimilation” a prerequisite for naturalization, it seems hard to argue that a woman who stays at home all day and refuses to engage with the culture for seven years is assimilating. On the other hand, how could we ever enforce these sorts of standards? How hard would it be to find legal citizens who don’t vote? Or women who don’t work? Or people who wear funny clothes? Do we wait until there’s a combination of the three to revoke citizenship? Or does birth trump all of them? Are you allowed to be a believer so long as you don't get all serious about it?

It seems to me that the point of having freedom of religion is that you’re not compelled to believe or disbelieve anything. Similarly, you can’t compel someone to be free, and using the power of the state to compel people to be free is as ridiculous in theory as it is generally terrible in practice.

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