Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Headscarves and the French Secular State

Recently Andy and Kame both blogged about this issue, haven't checked Merde in France yet, but I'm sure he has an opinion as well. The topic is hardly recent. I remember in the late eighties, Mitterand's wife was in the news a bit for supporting the rights of Muslim girls to wear headscarves in the French public schools.

The issue of outlawing religious references in children's clothing does seem very exotic to Americans. In Atlanta, some of the public schools (sorry all you English people, but the logical association of the word public is "freely available to the general public"--it doesn't make sense to use that term for exclusive private schools) have gone to mandatory uniforms. This has to do with some studies showing a correlation between mandatory uniforms and children's academic performance. I don't remember reading too much there, but I think the reasoning went that the clothing lent a "professional" association to the idea of school. You remove clothes as a major distraction and way of children establishing their identity and you reinforce some minimum standards. American parents are more concerned about having little Brianna not adopt the baby Britney pre-teen slut look or preventing ittle Johnny from wearing his jeans hip hop style, floating around his knees.

Why do the French care? It's a good question, and one on which I can only give an outsider's perspective. I can only imagine this goes back to France's long history of having Roman Catholicism as the state religion and the corresponding abuses that accompany that level of power and influence, so that following the French Revolution there was a very strong secular backlash. I remember reading that at some time in the post-Revolution period, it was requested that taxpayers list their religious affiliation on their tax returns so that they could be assessed a tax for the upkeep of their religious institution, and that it was the state who paid the salary of the Catholic priest, the Protestant pastor or the rabbi. This is more involvement than I would have imagined a secular state would want to have in religion, albeit the strategy was probably about control. There is a balance. I also remember in the Mitterand years that some of the religious schools in France were receiving state subsidies. They were upset when the government started intervening and telling them what they could teach. Yet, at the same time, they were taking the government money, so it was only a question of time before that sort of conflict arose.

I was surprised to hear my husband say that in France, the state schools are considered to be the best and that it is the private schools, which are often seen as a refuge for people who couldn't hack it in the competitive public school system--or for those whose parents have strong feelings about their children receiving a religious education. I don't think I could say the same for quality of American public schools, or at least the secondary schools in the city or state where I live. On a national level, one also reads that American children tend be among the lowest scoring in standardized tests compared to the rest of the world; certainly the political agendas of the Democratic and Republican parties pay lip service to concerns about the qualilty of public education in this country.

Thus, the general quality of French public schools is, I think, an important issue. While it would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds for children to have access to free, excellent public schooling, that is simply not the case in many places, certainly not in many parts of America. Ideally, free excellent quality public education would be a right, but in the real world it appears to be more of a priviledge. In France, one could argue that the quality of the public school system is very much the result of a centralized social and political agenda enacted by a government strongly entrenched in a secular tradition.

Are children in school to express their individuality? If they are in private school and that's what their parents are specifically paying for, yes. However, I'm not sure this is the case for public school, which we all pay for, but which must strive for standards that are acceptable to the majority. I've only seen his show once or twice but I'm sure some conservative American pundit like Bill O'Reilly would be pretty ambivalent here. If it was about little Maggie being prevented from wearing a discreet (read not the Madonna fashion statement) cross to public school, he and the religious right would be in an uproar. However, I can see him being sympathetic to the issue of uniforms in public schools and the policing of some minimum standards in attire.

Where are the people protesting for the right to religious expression in French public school coming from, specifically as it concerns Muslim headscarves? First, let's factor out those with no religious feelings about the issue at all who are simply protesting for the sake of protesting (ironically, the religious protestors are aligning themselves with a popular, secular French cultural trend there). Second, I cannot exactly know the feelings of the true protestors. Growing up, I never really knew how to interpret the practice of women wearing headscarves or sort of loose coats to go out, in certain Islamic countries. With an American girl's sensibility, it seemed oppressive, but I lacked reference points outside my own culture to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon. This confusion would have been heightened by the fact that both countries I chiefly read about, growing up in the US in the eighties, represented politicized Islam--Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It wasn't until I read the Iranian writer and literary critic, Azar Nafisi's book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" that I gained a sense of how a woman who grew up in a secular culture in an Islamic country (pre-Revolutionary Iran) would approach the same theme. Her take is that Islamic women who cover their hair and wearing loose-fitting long clothing do so as a personal expression of religious piety. When Islamic states require that women adopt this style of clothing and remove the element of personal choice in that decision, she feels they render the gesture meaningless. Well that I could understand better, or at least I could sympathize with choices people might make on an individual level. Admittedly, the sort of paternalistic sensibility conveyed by a phrase like "men have the eyes of wolves" doesn't really strike a chord with me or maybe I wouldn't peg the susceptibility to visual stimulation as a uniquely masculine trait and, at any rate, people will always find something to fixate on. After all, hadn't my English Lit friends and I had a good laugh about who was capable of finding the more "racy" parts of Spenser's Fairie Queene and I remember an older Spanish gentleman commenting on some earlier part of the last century, when women did dress more modestly: "ah, the rapture of an ankle!" The issue only becomes problematic when a gesture originally meant to reflect individual modesty or piety becomes viewed as a politicized statement.

If I were to go to Saudi Arabia, I would consider it normal to comply with their laws as regards women's clothing. If I were Saudi, the fact that Saudi Arabia is not exactly a democratic government is another issue, although some evidence suggests that if it were more democratic, the resulting government might be even more fundamentalist. So I'm not sure that would do anything to free up the dress code. At any rate, it's not my government or my culture, and I would be respectful of their laws if I were there. Correspondingly, the French government ban on religious expression in public schools is not a law that I would necessarily have supported were I French. However, I can understand where this law is coming from and that is something I can respect. Like it or not, public education is not about honoring the individual preferences of every single citizen, but about promoting the ideals of the state that supports it. In France, that is about the strong commitment to secularism in public institutions.

No comments: