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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Will Muslim Women Feel at Home in Their Home Country of France?

by Anna Mansson McGinty, special contributor

Muslim Women Stroll Down the Champs ElyseesMuslim 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, Paris

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

Anna Mansson McGintyAnna Mansson McGinty is Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Becoming Muslim: Western Women’s Conversions to Islam.

This article is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Arab and Jewish Women in Israel Should Join Forces

by Maram Masrawi, special contributor

Maram MasrawiThere are those who argue that the representation of Arab Israeli women in recent years in various television “reality” programmes testifies to a profound change within Arab Israeli society in general, and among Arab Israeli women in particular. Admittedly, when Arab women can be seen walking around in sleeveless shirts and miniskirts on the television show Big Brother, or modelling in programmes such as Models, or winning beauty contests, one can be forgiven for thinking that a revolution is taking place within Arab Israeli society.

Despite appearances, in fact actual developments within Arab society in Israel suggest that traditional patriarchal attitudes towards women within Arab society are becoming even more firmly entrenched, not less. Indeed, Jewish women in Israel fare better than their Arab counterparts overall, but in their case too, there is still much left to be desired.

In the struggle for gender equality in Israel, Jewish and Arab women could achieve far greater gains if they were to join forces and build a shared agenda for change.

Regarding Arab women (particularly Muslim women) in Israel, there are two trends which, in my opinion, suggest the increasing prevalence of traditional patriarchal values: the fact that the marriage age for women has dropped, and that more and more women are covering their hair with the hijab (headscarf).

Surprisingly, these developments are occurring simultaneously with a rise in Arab women’s level of education and an increased desire to join the workforce. This seeming contradiction between increased restrictions on women, on one end, and an acceptance of greater freedoms, on the other, sends a complex message to Arab women: yes, you as a woman can study and leave the house to work but only once you have submitted to traditional family and dress codes.

Moreover, attempts in the past few decades to empower Arab women in Israel by encouraging them to study, to work, and to play a role in public life have not translated into real equality. Thus, for example, the number of Arab women who have integrated into the work force is limited to 19 percent, with half of those working in education. Forty-three percent of Arab female academics in Israel are unemployed, and Arab women constitute the poorest segment of Israeli society.

In the academic and public discourse, the marginal place of the Arab woman is mainly attributed to her social and cultural status within a patriarchal society. But some of the arguments focus on the role of the state and its institutions in helping preserve a patriarchal tradition precisely because in the name of respecting cultural differences the government chooses not to interfere with attitudes towards Arab women within their own society.

Thus, Arab women find themselves caught between the burden of tradition and patriarchy and a multicultural, hands-off attitude by the state on the other.

Arab and Jewish women share a similar plight in that both groups pay a heavy price for the ongoing conflict between the two peoples. The price is two-fold: both groups of women are kept out of the centres of decision-making, and they are expected to put their need for gender equality on hold. Women are repeatedly told that gender equality is secondary to the more pressing demands of national survival.

As Arab and Jewish women who represent half of the Israeli population, we must fight together for our rights in the workplace and in education; we must work to bring women into parliament and into the centres of decision-making, breaking the male domination of the social and political processes.

International Woman’s Day presented an opportune moment to urge both Arab and Jewish women in Israel to work together to advance an alternative gender agenda. We can and must cultivate the practice of compassion and tolerance as the basic building blocks for a language of dialogue, which can challenge the aggressive discourse that dominates our reality.

Israeli women — both Jewish and Arab — can bring a richness to the discourse that goes beyond the television screen. We would do well to merge our struggles for gender equality and equality between our two peoples on the grassroots and political levels. Women who bring life into the world have the right and duty to preserve it, and should therefore strive to place themselves in the centre of action and decision-making processes.

Dr. Maram Masrawi is a lecturer and researcher at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and at the Al Qasemi College in Baka al-Gharbiya. She lives in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.

A version of this article was written by the Common Ground News Service on March 15, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.


Bahrain Women Educate WNBA’s Mistie Bass

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

WNBA player Mistie Bass's essay in Friday’s New York Times is a personal reflection about her stint coaching a women’s basketball team in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain:

"They were used to being coached by men who tended to discourage them. But I saw nothing but tremendous potential, and I tried to nourish it. I made it clear that I was invested in the team’s improvement, and the players made it clear that they were serious as well. … Coaching them really drove home the point that if you give with no intent to receive, you will get so much more in return."

Bass goes on to say how she transcended her own preconceptions about Islam through the real relationships she developed with her players. Her essay reminds me that sports can be a powerful way to forge bonds despite differences in language, culture, and religion.

We’ve been talking as a production staff about the meaning and purpose people find through sports — whether they’re athletes or fans or both. With the World Cup fast approaching, we’re wondering about the significance of sports in your own life. Is there a spiritual dimension to sports for you? What ideas do you have about how SOF could open up a conversation about this topic?

(photo: Mistie Bass/Chicago Sky)

The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, proposed to him. What is that, if not a precedent?

Ruqaya Izzidien—Ruqaya Izzidien, from "Muslimahs doing it for themselves" in today’s Guardian.

I’m currently editing Kate’s interview with Omid Safi, which focuses on his recent book about memories and stories of Muhammad. During the conversation he says that if you ask most people a story about Christianity they can tell you about a prevailing idea or parable about Jesus; ask about Judaism and you’ll often hear something about Moses; inquire about Hinduism and Gandhi will come up or the idea of non-violence. But, if you ask them about the Prophet, they most likely will have no concrete idea or story.

Later on, he shares a wonderful story about the Prophet and the “naked embrace” of his wife when he’s questioning the veracity of his divine visions. A concrete story that humanizes Muhammad, to be sure, but also a tale about women and their influential role within Islamic thought.

In the quote above, Ms. Izzidien gives another concrete example of the Prophet through an interaction with his wife — but, this time, by weaving it into her delightful and light-hearted, but sincere, take on young Muslim women assuming the lead in courtship. A modern-day perspective worth noticing, and look for the produced interview with Omid Safi later next week!

Trent Gilliss, online editor


Should Women “Man Up” - Even If It Means Bad Behavior?

Kaeti Hinck, guest contributor

Charley, a Powerful Woman
(photo: Pieter Musterd)

I’m not a narcissist. But Clay Shirky thinks I should be.

The media critic recently posted a controversy-mongering blog titled “A Rant About Women,” the premise being that women would do well to act more like men — stand up for themselves more and do what it takes to get ahead, even if it means being a “pompous blowhard”:

[Women] are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Reading Shirky’s rant certainly doesn’t surprise from a gender standpoint. Most women have heard it our whole lives: Be more like men, even if said men are glorifying and rewarding reprehensible behavior.

What gives me pause is that Shirky, like so many of our “thought leaders,” isn’t leading at all, rather, willingly following the cultural trend of less substance and more self-aggrandizement, less selflessness and more LOOK AT ME HEY OVER HERE. So because that’s the way our culture is heading, we should equip ourselves to be better narcissists? As if we needed any help in that arena.

I see this less as a gender issue, though that is undoubtedly a factor, and more as a dangerous societal shift. We should be challenging a system that exalts arrogant self-promotion and “being discovered” over the actual work of making things better. Instead, Shirky critiques the behavior of people (not just women) who refuse to kowtow to this path of least resistance. Anna North at Jezebel said it well:

Shirky writes, “in an ideal future, self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. This isn’t because of oppression, it’s because of freedom.” Shirky has an idealistic view of self-promotion — he also thinks it’s a marker of a variety of other skills, about which I’m very skeptical (see above). Others take a dimmer view: it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and women had better transform themselves into better dog-eaters. This “change-yourself-to-fit-in” advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years …

Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let’s not fall for it.

This “self promotion equals greater rewards” system is not a future we should embrace willingly. In fact, it’s a pretty dismal picture of humanity where navel gazing and notoriety inform our fundamental identities.

To Shirky’s credit, I think it’s a fair point that we need to stand up for our work and make our voices heard (not just women, but especially women). But I think it’s unproductive, not to mention morally suspect, to do so because we hope to “get famous five years from now.” And I can’t believe that the loudest blowhards in the room are the ones doing the real work of changing the world. They’re too busy talking about the work — or themselves — to actually get down to doing it. Why should we emulate their behavior?

As North said in her response: “’The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is a s**tty way to run a world.”

She’s right. So how do we cut through the clamor of self-promotion and elevate the people and voices that are doing the often-thankless work of making the world better?

kaeti1016Ms. Hinck is a multimedia journalist and editor living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. You can read her blog Brain Popcorn and follow her on Twitter.


Portraits of Women from Kandahar
Trent Gilliss, online editor

The Behind the Veil project from The Globe and Mail got its start with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of “a law that, among other things, allowed some men to demand sex from their wives.” What’s come of it is a compelling six-part series of multimedia reports exploring Afghani women’s issues, which they’re rolling out over the next week.

The timeline and reporter’s notebook are helpful and give you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a female journalist reporting in restrictive conditions. But, watching ten women from Kandahar, ranging in age from 15 to 50, share their perspectives on their lives and the changing state of society is the real highlight. The overwhelming idea, despite the texture of the many ideas shared, is the basic need for safety and security. Without that sense of protection, all the aspirations and hopes for women’s rights and education falls prey to pragmatism of carrying on a daily existence.

Wangari Maathai in PrintAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Nancy just found this poster featuring a past guest of ours on the Web site for Just Seeds, a creative collective that unites artists who “believe in the power of personal expression in concert with collective action to transform society.” They don’t appear to have the poster for sale, but you can grab a postcard of the print.
Wangari Maathai in PrintAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Nancy just found this poster featuring a past guest of ours on the Web site for Just Seeds, a creative collective that unites artists who “believe in the power of personal expression in concert with collective action to transform society.” They don’t appear to have the poster for sale, but you can grab a postcard of the print.

Wangari Maathai in Print
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

Nancy just found this poster featuring a past guest of ours on the Web site for Just Seeds, a creative collective that unites artists who “believe in the power of personal expression in concert with collective action to transform society.” They don’t appear to have the poster for sale, but you can grab a postcard of the print.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

— —Nicholas Kristof, from his latest column, "Religion and Women" (January 9, 2010)

(via Never Be Silent)

Trent Gilliss, online editor