Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom sans kippa

In what appears to be an effort to alienate the much-discussed but let's face it not-so-populous community of European Jews who vote for their country's far-right parties because conservatism or Likud-ness or who knows beats out a desire not to vote for the heirs of Nazism/collaborationism, Marine Le Pen has decided that the yarmulke has no place in the land of the beret. This, because she's not too keen on the veil, and she wants to be consistent. But lest your Catherine Deneuve-ish self be alarmed, no one's asking you to dispose of your Hermès silk: “Anyone can tell the difference between a veil worn for religious reasons and one that is not.” Well obviously. A scarf worn by a white woman - or man! it's France! - is secular.

As for the kippa, it's like the veil but not. There's a feminist case - not one I tend to agree with - that Muslim women cover their heads or faces not as free religious expression, but because a male relative or cleric is forcing them to do so. Whereas there's not much of a case to be made that Jewish mothers are forcing this on their sons, cue the jokes that I myself am not Borscht Belt enough to provide.


PG said...

There's a feminist case - not one I tend to agree with - that Muslim women cover their heads or faces not as free religious expression, but because a male relative or cleric is forcing them to do so.

Some do it because of that; some do it voluntarily. As ever, the feminist position presumably is to support women's having the choice. In a pre-existing condition of private, non-state forcing of women to do something, support of choice may have to include criminalizing coercion or harassment of women regarding head coverings. (India has such anti-harassment laws regarding dowry demands, and while men's rights types object to the laws, they are probably necessary in a society starting from a position of extreme de facto sex inequality.)

Britta said...

Yeah, the headscarf issue in France is complicated. I think I've noted this before here, but mainstream anti-racist groups like SOS-Racisme were for the ban, which they saw as a way to combat violence and harassment against immigrant women. In the large banlieus this violence isn't minimal and I think gets discounted in conversations about the ban in the US, but it also could probably be dealt with in more direct effective ways.

Your phrasing also reminded me of a memorable moment I had interviewing an Algerian immigrant about the veil. After finding out his sisters veiled, I asked him if it was their decision or his parents' decision that they wear a headscarf. He just looked at me like I was kind of stupid and said, "It's Allah's decision." It was a little bit of a jolt and made me realize that I was thinking on a different level than my informants.

Phoebe said...

I know much less about this topic than Britta does, but a bit more than the average person, being in my 10,000th year of a PhD program on Modern France. But my understanding of this is that the French who, for feminist, reasons support veil bans (and remember, there are also those who want to ban it for xenophobic reasons, which may or may not be framed as feminist reasons) do so precisely because they believe that these are necessary to permit all French women, Muslims included, to have access to all the opportunities France has to offer. The opportunity to express one’s religious individuality isn’t as highly-valued there as here, and it’s considered legit, kind of, that others would judge you for forms of difference that are not innate. (As in, racism is bad, but being treated differently on account of some hyphenated identity you might have, in theory, rejected in favor of an entirely French one, c’est normal.) So even if there were some way to ban forced but not voluntary wearing of the veil (a logistical near-impossibility), this would only solve part of the dilemma. The assimilation bit would remain.

As for why I'm not crazy about it, basically because it's kind of an invented non-problem. From what I remember of this, very few French women of Muslim or Arab heritage or self-identification even wear the veil. Also because I think the motivations here are not as benign as they might seem, even when feminist reasons are what are given. (As in, it can be racist even when someone who isn't named Le Pen is involved.) Also because, as an American, the French approach to multiculturalism is something I can understand intellectually, but can't quite get behind.

Britta said...


No, you're right. When the ban was passed, less than 2% of girls actually wore a headscarf to school. There's also the legitimate feminist argument that banning the veil would simply make really religious parents pull their daughters out of public school, thus further marginalizing them. Also, even for anti-racist groups run by immigrants or their descendants, I found the argument "well, if girls don't wear a headscarf the teacher won't discriminate against them as much" to be common, an argument most Americans would find victim-blaming at minimum.

I think, to the extent I don't think the ban was racist (which I think for many reasons it was, I don't want to downplay that here), is that there is a sense among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Muslim fundamentalism is an increasing problem in banlieus, in large part because of the large number of angry, disaffected unemployed youth. One Muslim informant of mine called them "paradise dealers," as akin to "drug dealers." I think, again, to the extent the ban was trying to address something legitimate, it would be maybe akin to trying to decrease gang activity in US inner cities by banning baggy pants. Again, it would be misguided, not effective, and probably also motivated by some sort of racism, but it is true that gang activity is a problem historically growing out of racist policies but not currently necessarily directly attributable or related to racism.

I've been thinking about this after lots of talks this summer with my godmother about Turkish immigrants, and that one reason why it's hard for Americans to understand European immigration is that it's a whole bunch of things rolled into one that here are separate. When we think about racism and urban ills, we think about black people; when we think about immigration and the changing nature of the US, we think mostly about Latinos; and when we think about terrorism we think about Muslims who generally aren't US citizens. In Europe, all of these are wrapped up together.