Will Muslim Women Feel at Home in Their Home Country of France?
by Anna Mansson McGinty, special contributor
Muslim men and women stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. (photo: Archibald Ballantine/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
“Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel at home. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer, we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully, the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home.”
Camile is one of the Muslim women interviewed in “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France,” a report written as part of the “At Home in Europe Project” of the Open Society Foundations. The report was released in April, as the ban on the covering of the face, such as with the niqab or burqa, went into effect on April 11.
The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.
The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam, and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.
Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to €150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes.
But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream?
This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.
Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.
In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration.
To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammad’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country.
References in This Article
- “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others” by Lila Abu-Lughod in American Anthropologist
- “The Burqa Debate. Are Women’s Rights Really the Issue?” in Der Spiegel
- Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics by Cynthia Enloe
- “France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public” by Steven Erlanger in The New York Times
- “Deux Mille Femmes Portent la Burqa en France” (“Two Thousand Women Wear the Burqa in France”) by Cécilia Gabizon in Le Figaro
- “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France” in the At Home in Europe Project by Open Society Foundations
This article is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Remembering Juliano Mer-Khamis and His Theater of Hope and Resistance in Jenin
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Young Palestinian men mourn the death of Juliano Mer-Khamis (poster) outside The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank a day after unknown gunmen killed the actor and director in his car. (photo: Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)
“I have no hope for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in my lifetime. You ask for political, practical, local hope. Like it’s going to be solved. Jews and Arabs are going to kiss each other and hold hands and go to the beach. This is not going to happen. I have hope as a human being, yes. Oh I have big hope as a human being. I believe in humans. I believe that people are good.”
In a land splintered by contested physical borders and deep wells of distrust, Juliano Mer-Khamis described himself as “100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.” The 52-year-old actor and activist was slain last week in Jenin, where he ran The Freedom Theatre, an arts program and cultural center for local youth in Jenin Refugee Camp.
The son of an Israeli-Jewish mother and a Palestinian-Christian father, Juliano Mer-Khamis refused to choose one identity over the other. As an adult, he kept a residence in Haifa, on the Israeli side, as well as in Jenin. Even his funeral transcended borders; pallbearers carried his casket across the Jalama checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank so that Palestinian mourners could participate.
In 2006, Juliano Mer-Khamis described his work with The Freedom Theater as a kind of artistic intifada:
“…we believe that the strongest struggle today should be cultural, moral. This must be clear. We are not teaching the boys and the girls how to use arms or how to create explosives, but we expose them to discourse of liberation, of liberty. We expose them to art, culture, music — which I believe can create better people for the future, and I hope that some of them, some of our friends in Jenin, will lead … and continue the resistance against the occupation through this project, through this theatre.”
Mer-Khamis was a controversial figure who seemed to be a clear-eyed realist about his life and work. In fact, he embraced this. “Lucky me,” he told PBS’ Need to Know.
“To be a theater and not controversial, then you should go open a clinic. Or be a dentist. We are a factory for controversy. We are the factory of ideas, of arguments of disputes. We are the factory where people should not like it. Otherwise, what are we doing here?”
Change and Hope Come from the Margins
by Krista Tippett, host
I can only urge you to listen to Vincent Harding, a wise voice of history and its deep resonance for the contemporary world. He uses the word “magnificent” often and he embodies that word.
Vincent Harding offers an essential and utterly helpful perspective, I feel, to our ongoing collective reflection on civility, moral imagination, and social healing. He was a friend and speechwriter of Martin Luther King Jr. and a force in the philosophy of nonviolence that drove the civil rights movement’s success. That is to say, he was at the center of a moment of human and societal transformation that was wrested from another American era of toxic division and social violence. And Vincent Harding has continued to mine the lessons of that time in the intervening decades, and to bring them creatively and usefully to young people today.
These are stories we rarely see or hear, and they are happening in neighborhoods in places like Detroit and Philadelphia where our lens is usually focused on despair and decay.
So among other things — interestingly, from a very different direction, echoing my conversation with Frances Kissling — Vincent Harding reminds us that change and hope come from the margins. And he has stories to tell about that hope as it’s embodied and lived on the margins of today.
This is also a beautiful hour of production — rich with the music by which people, as Vincent Harding puts it, did not merely demonstrate but “sang” their way to freedom in the 1960s. You will never hear the song “This Little Light of Mine” or the phrase “a Kumbaya moment” in the same way again. Enjoy, and be enriched.
About the image: Reverend Jim Forbes (L) hugs Dr. Vincent Harding (R) during a service at All Souls Church to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday (photo: Mark Ralston/Getty Images).
Lorraine Hansberry’s American Radicalism
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”
In 1964, Lorraine Hansberry, who is best remembered for her play A Raisin in the Sun, spoke these words during a forum at Town Hall in New York City. “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom — a collective of black actors and writers including Ossie Davis and James Baldwin — convened white liberals and black activists to discuss disagreements that were fomenting between these two groups as the civil rights struggles of the 1960s unfolded.
The intentions of the Town Hall forum echo the questions we’ve been asking in our Civil Conversations Project: How do we find new ways to speak and listen to each other, to live forward together, even while holding passionate disagreements?
In her seven-minute speech (featured as part of American RadioWorks’ radio documentary “Say It Loud”), Hansberry articulates the frustrations of blacks who struggled against oppression using “proper” channels like the courts and saw meager results in return. Hansberry’s own father battled Chicago’s segregated housing codes all the way up to the Supreme Court — and won. But in the end, this victory didn’t catalyze bigger changes. Chicago remained residentially segregated and Hansberry’s father “died a disillusioned exile in another country.”
Hansberry uses her speech to call out white liberals for being too timid. In her private journals though, she questioned the limits of her own courage: “Do I remain a revolutionary?” she wrote. “Intellectually — without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts? … Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”
Hansberry’s trenchant public words, juxtaposed with the self-doubt she expressed in her journals, reveal a woman who was fierce and also vulnerable. Sadly, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34, only seven months after she gave this speech.
Malcolm X on Human Rights, Not Civil Rights
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Malcolm X was assassinated on this day in 1965 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom while speaking to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Weeks before his death, he appeared on the CBC’s “Front Page Challenge” and addresses questions ranging from the his departure from the Nation of Islam to his disagreements with “Uncle Martin” to his practice of Islam.
“We are black Americans. We have a problem that goes beyond religion. …
We feel that the problem, number one, of the black man in America is beyond America’s ability to solve. It’s a human problem, not an American problem or a Negro problem. And as a human problem or a world problem, we feel that it should be taken out of the jurisdiction of the United States government and the United States courts and taken into the United Nations in the same manner that the problems of the black man in South Africa, Angola, and other parts of the world — and even the way they’re trying to bring the problems of the Jews in Russia into the United Nations because of violations of human rights.
We believe that our problem is one not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.”
[A big thanks to The Smithian for reminding us!]
Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Who doesn’t love the remarkable and enduring Mavis Staples? And teaming up with Jeff Tweedy? Well, the Grammy voters couldn’t resist her charm either, awarding her Best Americana Album for her latest work, You Are Not Alone. Which is a perfect opportunity to share these two videos of her and Wilco front man Tweedy performing acoustic versions of both songs he composed for the album: the title track “You Are Not Alone” (above) and “Only the Lord Knows” (below).
Her win also gives us a chance to remember her family’s legacy in the American civil rights movement. As Dr. Vincent Harding reminds us in an upcoming show, artists like The Staples Singers (“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”) and Curtis Mayfield created a soundtrack of hope for the movement. In the liner notes of Mavis Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, she wrote this personal letter reminding us of this history and the need for positive change going forward:
“When we started our family group, The Staple Singers, we started out mostly singing in churches in the South. Pops saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1963 and from there we started to broaden our musical vision beyond just gospel songs. Pops told us, “I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.” So we started to write “freedom songs,” like “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done,” “Long Walk to DC,” and many others. Like many in the civil rights movement, we drew on the spirituality and the strength from the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights.
We became a major voice for the civil rights movement and hopefully helped to make a difference in this country. It was a difficult and dangerous time (in 1965 we spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas and I wondered if we’d ever make it out alive) but we felt we needed to stand up and be heard.
So for us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well, I tell you ¬ we need a change now more than ever, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.
With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did with the Staple Singers — and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place. Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back. 99 and 1/2 just won’t do!”
A good way to kick off your Friday.
You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity. Vincent Harding did just that.
In the audio above, the theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. creates that vulnerable opening and ever so gently corrects, without admonishment, when the “Kumbaya” is referred to as a soft and squishy moment of song:
“Whenever somebody jokes about “Kumbaya,” my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. …
In group after group, people were singing:
‘Kumbaya. “Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here.”’
I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya.”
I know I’ve used this this reference to a “kumbaya moment” in a slightly pejorative way. This no longer holds true. I can no longer judge using this label. Let Vincent Harding’s story be a lesson for us all.
We’re producing the radio show now and it’ll be released on February 24th.
The Struggle for Change and the Struggle to Resist Change: Untold Stories from Mississippi
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“I saw them in the deep South. People who were considered backward, unable to do anything became the creators of a new possibility for the whole nation. When I think about Tienanmen Square and Prague, I realize that those folks in Mississippi and Alabama who were considered useless, were able to speak to the world.”
— Vincent Harding, theologian and civil rights activist
Ordinary heroes of the civil rights movement who emerged out of Mississippi — people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and James Meredith — risked their lives to break the back of racial injustice. Their inspiring stories are the stuff of history books. These were regular people who accomplished extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
What’s less known are the stories of ordinary white Mississippians who tried to preserve segregation. Segregationists weren’t limited to the stereotyped “fat potbellied sheriff who kind of walks around with a gun, and chews tobacco, and throws the N-word around everywhere he goes,” explains Mississippi historian Robby Luckett in American RadioWorks’ latest documentary, “State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement.”
Pro-segregation organizing was entrenched and complex. Government agencies and civic groups formed to thwart integration. Those who resisted risked retribution in different forms, from job loss to social ostracism to physical violence.
Segregationists, says Robby Luckett “came in all shapes and and forms, and were quite savvy. And when you understand that those are the people that the civil rights movement was up against, you understand the kind of challenge they had.”
“State of Siege” untangles the knots of this untold history. It’s useful history to revisit in this moment when citizens are pressuring entrenched regimes to change in the Middle East. Mississippi is arguably the state where segregation was hardest to break. And yet as “State of Siege” concludes, “It is sometimes said that civil-rights activists accomplished more in Mississippi than in any other southern state, because white resistance there was so incredibly fierce, and the road to freedom so very long.”
About the image: University of Mississippi students protest against integration on October 1, 1962. (photo: Flip Schulke/Corbis)
Angélique Kidjo’s Songs that Inspire the Struggle
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“The songs tried to encourage us not simply to to be reactors, but to indicate our own initiative and our own power.”
In our interview yesterday morning, Vincent Harding spoke about the galvanizing power of song during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. He also lamented that today’s “hip-hop young people” have not produced a soundtrack for their generation that can express the “great need and desire for a better world.”
But, for many African youth, Angélique Kidjo is helping create this soundtrack. The 50-year-old, Grammy winner is inspiring this rising generation by revisiting music that emerged from the American civil rights movement, namely that of Curtis Mayfield, whose music shaped and was shaped by the struggles of this time.
On her most recent album, Kidjo re-crafted his 1970 hit “Move on Up.” As Kidjo told the New York Amsterdam News in 2010:
“When I first heard this song when I was a child, I couldn’t believe those issues existed in America. When I moved to America, I not only realized he was telling the truth, but that those issues are still relevant. In fact not just America, but the world. When you take a look at the children of Africa, they stopped believing in what their futures could be. None of the leaders of Africa are thinking of creating jobs or creating a place where they can feel safe, confident, proud and dignified to live in, so I wanted to dedicate that song to kids and let them know it was O.K. to dream big.”
Kidjo performed her rendition of this Mayfield classic in South Africa at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As she told the Sowetan in June 2010: “I wanted to do and dedicate this song to the youth of Africa to show that it is possible for us to overcome the challenges. Enough of thinking that what comes from outside is better than what is from here. … Africa is not about misery and poverty, there is joy.”
(photo: Michelly Rall/Getty Images for Live Earth Events)