Sunday, September 12, 2010

Robert Zaretsky on Veils

Robert Zaretsky in the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

This attitude reflects a tragic irony: The other side of the coin of equality in France is the refusal to acknowledge the desires of some citizens to hold on to certain religious, social, and cultural practices. That there is a wide spectrum of motivations behind these desires has been lost from sight. When we see a Christian wearing a cross, or a Jew in a skullcap, we do not assume that they all have the same motivation for signaling their religious faith, much less have been forced to do so. Why do we fail to attribute the same act of volition to wearers of the veil? Instead, the French risk representing Islam as a monolithic belief system—an ideological foil for the totalizing discourse of French republicanism.
Some historians suggest that there are deep continuities between Vichy and the republics that preceded and followed. In this regard, we might consider one consequence of the Statut des Juifs: Vichy eventually enforced the Nazi order that all Jews living in the occupied zone (roughly the northern half of France occupied by the Germans in 1940) wear the Jewish star on their outer clothing. While the differences between then and now are striking, they nevertheless reflect similar ideological and conceptual preoccupations. One group is forced to wear an article of clothing, while another group is forced to surrender an article of clothing; one group is banished from the nation, while another group is compelled to assimilate. In both cases, however, the nation refuses to tolerate otherness.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Although it's an interesting theory, it misses the point (and I'm among those who are aghast at France's frequent unthinking intolerance.)
A key difference is that the veil singles out a gender - both men and women, adults and children, can wear a skullcap or a cross. Only post-puberty girls and women can wear a veil. It thus opens interpretation that the veil is imposed upon them by men who see them as becoming "prey" to other men otherwise, or for whom showing one's hair equals lasciviousness. Unfortunately, in France you've got many areas where wearing a SKIRT is enough to create a "bad rep" - Even here, in the middle of nowhere, Kiddo came back from middle school convinced that only sluts wear skirts and do so to indicate sexual promiscuity, and tried to convince me that it'd changed "since the old days", that I didn't know how it went here, etc; so in areas where wearing a veil is the equivalent of wearing pants for Muslim girls how do you determine what is forced and what is voluntary?
I mention the "skirt" issue because it's not related to religion but to a subculture's set of beliefs, that of working class teenagers and young adults.
The other side of the coin is that some girls wear veils to show they're "respectable" in order to go outside and hang out with their girlfriends, go to the movies, etc, without a risk for their reputation.
While there's a definite "refusal to tolerate otherness" aspect to the issue, reducing it to that is wrong.

FrédéricLN said...

I would start and finish the same way as Anonyme - an interesting theory, but it may miss the point.

"the nation refuses to tolerate otherness."

Not exactly so. We rather consider tolerance (and even warm welcome) to otherness as a great and quite specific feature of our bright French civilization.

So, we may over-react to some of the signs coming from The Otherness, if we understand them as a refusal to tolerate otherness.

And presently, we consider "l'islam intégriste" as a doctrine that refuses to tolerate otherness. So, we are ready to ban any signs that "l'islam intégriste" would be present in our "espace public".

Vous nous demandez la liberté au nom de nos principes ... nous vous la refusons au nom des vôtres.

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Not to mention that "we" above means "much of the French present public mind". As I lived some time in a mixed, Christian-Muslim country, a very peaceful one even if there were some "voiles intégraux", I do not feel things the same way, and do not feel threatened by these veils.

And I definitely think the Republic should act according to its own principles, not to those of "l'islam intégriste".

But I admit that many French people may feel otherwise.