Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Secularism ≠ Racism

I really wasn’t going to blog about this.  It’s been done to death – even PostGlobal covered it four times yesterday.  An Iranian, an Emirati, a South Korean, and a German all weighed in, all with different opinions.  I covered it yesterday for Global Voices as well, quoting several Arab-Americans, as well as a white American, and someone of unknown origins – again, all different opinions.  A cursory glance at the blogosphere finds the same thing.

What’s interesting is that the lines on this issue are not so linear.  Let me go back a moment – for those of you uninclined to read hundreds of blogs a day (you’re the normal ones, not me), the story goes a little something like this: Faiza Silmi, a Moroccan woman, moves to France in 2000 to be with her husband, a French citizen of Moroccan origins.  They have three children, all born in France.  Faiza applies for citizenship, and is turned down – some say because she wears niqaab (note: most news stories keep calling it “burqa,” which is in fact inaccurate – the burqa is a specific garment popularized in Afghanistan – being from Morocco, Faiza more likely wears a djellaba or even abaya with a facial veil called the niqaab), others say because of her beliefs (she allegedly thinks that only men should vote, she can’t define “democracy,” etc).  Pierre Tristam has a solid timeline of the case here.

So today, when an interview with Faiza herself appeared in the International Herald Tribune, you could say that I was more than interested in reading it.  Nevermind that within the first two paragraphs, Faiza’s “hazel eyes” are mentioned (this tactic could mean one of two things, and I doubt it’s to identify her as Amazigh).  And nevermind that it’s pointed out that “the ruling has received almost unequivocal support across the political spectrum, including among many Muslims” (as if pointing that out automatically validates the court’s decision).  Nevermind any of that – I want to hear what Faiza Silmi has to say!  And since the article was in the IHT and not the AP, I’ll quote her:

“They say I wear the niqab because my husband told me so.  I want to tell them: It is my choice. I take care of my children and I leave the house when I please. I have my own car. I do the shopping on my own. Yes, I am a practicing Muslim, I am orthodox. But is that not my right?”

Silmi also points out inaccuracies in other news articles – for example, that she did not refuse to remove her facial veil during her citizenship hearings.

Unfortunately, that’s where the goodness of the article ends.  The “journalist” then resorts to tactics like pointing out that “the government commissioner approvingly noted in her report that she was treated by a male gynecologist during her pregnancies.”

Where does this end?  I admit that when I first heard the story, I too had fleeting thoughts of pride in France standing up for secularism (you might recall that when Germany instituted its bizarre questionnaires for new immigrants a few years back, I strongly approved).  But love of secular government aside, this is not what I stand for.

Faiza Silmi wants to be a citizen of France.  She is also a Muslim, and an orthodox one at that.  Most of all, she is a part of society.  She went to France of her own free will.  And for whatever reason she decided to wear niqaab, she did that of her own free will as well (that’s the beauty of France – her husband can’t really force her to do anything, can he?)

France, and just about every country embroiled in a debate about immigration, claim the issue to be about values.  I don’t think so.  It’s not Mormons or Orthodox Jews or Catholics being vilified in Europe – it’s Muslims.  I’m all for secularism, and if France wants to institute stricter immigration policies, then so be it.  But as it stands now, its policies simply reinforce the already growing prejudice against Muslims, and Muslim women in particular.

The so-called western media (and for that matter, significant portions of non-western media) is constantly berating Muslim women for their religious choices, but rarely do they consider them as just that – choices. No one thought to question the values of Faiza Silmi’s husband, did they?  If she truly is being forced to wear niqaab, isn’t it his citizenship that should be questioned?  No – totalitarian or not, he’s a participant in French society, right?  Oppressive or not, we can see his face.

I’m sure if we were able to look past – not through – Faiza Silmi’s veil, we’d see a worthy candidate as well.

16 Comments

  1. You are right. The husband’s citizenship should primarily put into question, possibly revoked. Such was a proposition called for by a group of German feminists and other activists under the name of “Becklash”, published in isioma.net.

  2. Just a small remark. “It’s not Mormons or Orthodox Jews or Catholics being vilified in Europe – it’s Muslims.” Ok but it’s not about European Moslims. It’s about Moslims migrating to Europe. I think this is a matter of migration. It is not about one woman – it’s about all those women who want to go to France and change the fashion in the street.

  3. @ Eric – I didn’t say it should be. I just asked why it wasn’t.

    @Van Kaas – First of all, does France have fashion police? Are obese women policed? They’ve changed fashion in the street, haven’t they? What about orthodox Jews?

    I know a lot of Moroccan women who wear moderate hijab (meaning their face is uncovered) who would like to go to France. I don’t think their goal is to change fashion in the street. For most, their goal is to get a better education, or work at a better job…Remember, Morocco has few major universities (only the best complete their studies there) and a 20% unemployment rate. These are women who adhere to their religion, wear hijab, and want to go to France, not women who want to go to France to wear hijab.

  4. I’m a French citizen and I couldn’t desagree more with your interpretation of the facts. The main thing is that you don’t seems to understand the core French values behind this. Becoming French is more than getting a piece of paper. This women is one of the many new immigrants that refuse to integrate. And that’s a key thing. Integration in France is taken very seriously. Wherever you go, you have to obide by the rules.
    Integration is to French people the opposite of communautarism. But these terms have a slightly different meaning to Americans which is understandable but leads to misunderstandings.

    I’ve lived myself in the US and I still cannot always understand traditional “American values” when it comes to gun control for instance. Also it’s astounding from a European point of view that your country is still debating about abortion. But one cannot criticize American choices with only a European (or else) frame of reference.

    My point is that you shouldn’t make intercultural judgements like you are doing because you don’t seems have the tools to do so when it comes to French domestic policies.

  5. Nicolas,

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you understand my concern. You stated that this woman has refused to integrate. Now, if you were one of many French who believe that France is better without Muslims at all, then I would stop arguing here. But my impression is that you believe that Faiza Silmi in particular has refused to integrate – what I don’t quite understand is what, honestly, makes her different from all of the Muslim women who HAVE been granted citizenship.

    Jillian

  6. Christian Soldier

    July 23, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Why hide your face?????? I want my wife to be able to speak to anyone of any faith and be able to receive respect from them as well as give respect. This is nothing but abuse to women and until the world and you realize that women in the muslim community are being mistreated this will get even worse. I dont believe that women should be led around like dogs nor do I believe that women should show any of their body for example cleavage. But covering there heads and there face is so freaky to me I will never get over it. That screams out to me TERRORIST!!!!!.I sure hope you have read the Quran like I said to, it sure is troubling,very troubling……..

  7. Frankly, Christian Soldier, I find the Bible as troubling as the Qu’ran. Let me be clear about one thing – I am defending civil liberties, not Islam. I am defending the right of a woman to dress as she wishes, in the same way I would defend the right of a woman to have an abortion or become a stripper.

    I don’t believe women should be led around like dogs either; I also don’t believe that this particular woman is being led around. She says she made the choice to wear niqaab and to practice orthodox Islam; we may disagree with that choice, but if she did in fact choose that herself, then that is her right.

  8. Jillian,

    I understood what you meant and took it just a step further.

    In your remark to Christian Soldier you clarified that you are in favor of any woman’s right to chose whatever she wants to wear. OK, but societies take the right to define who to grant citizenship to. If, for example you are a communist the US will hardly grant citizenship to you. Worse, you won’t even get a visa to visit the country of the free and the brave. If you are a US citizen you are not allowed to visit Cuba for example. So much for for the freedom of choice in that part of the world. Faiza obviously is thinking of moving to Morocco, a country where women are really struggling for equal rights. Maybe she wants to join their fight, although I doubt that very much.

  9. Faiza is obviously thinking of moving to Morocco? What gave you that impression? She’s lived in France for EIGHT YEARS. Her children are French, she has adjusted to life there. I take issue with the French judge’s assessment of her – it’s clear from the media coverage that they didn’t get it right the first time (it being Faiza’s situation).

    As for the US, I’m perfectly aware that my country is not free.

    As for Morocco – women have more rights than you’d think.

  10. Jillian,

    Check the article “A Veil Closes France’s Door to Citizenship” by KATRIN BENNHOLD in NYT, 07/19/08: Ms. Silmi’s husband, a former bus driver who says he is finding it hard to get work because of his beard, dreams of moving his family to Morocco or Saudi Arabia.

  11. What’s your point, Eric? That doesn’t mean Faiza herself has the same dream.

  12. Well, the NYT writes: The Silmis say they live by a literalist interpretation of the Koran….and they cite Faiza saying: “I want to belong to my husband and my husband only.” The NYT further reports: Emmanuelle Prada-Bordenave, the government commissioner who reported to the Council of State, said Ms. Silmi’s interviews with social services revealed that “She lives in total submission to her male relatives. She seems to find this normal, and the idea of challenging it has never crossed her mind.”
    I find that pretty convincing because both Silmis said they observe an orthodox (if not Salafist – which they deny) version of Islam. Orthodox Islam takes the Koran literally and that means the wife has to be submissive to the husband. Therefore, whatever Karim wants Faiza has to go along with. If his wish is to go to Saudi Arabia she has to follow suit. I bet, once they go, she will say it was her own choice and that she loves being in Saudi Arabia (where she is not even allowed to drive her car by herself).

  13. Eric, that does not demonstrate what Faiza actually wants for herself. Wanting to belong to one’s husband only does not imply submission. And I don’t really trust Ms. Prada-Bordenave, not one bit. What she thinks of Faiza Silmi is meaningless to me.

    As for Saudi Arabia, looks like they’re close to letting women drive, finally.

  14. Jillian,
    Wanting to belong to one’s husband only does not imply submission. That’s right, but orthodox Islam demands submission of the wife to her husband.
    I am not familiar with Ms Prada Bordenave, but I have seen and heard Fadela Amara, one of the leaders of the group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Sluts nor Submissives). She is of Maghrebian descent and now minister and Secrétaire d’état in charge of Politique de la Ville, or Urban Politics. She is very convincing, very impressive, and I trust her. She welcomed the ruling referring to the niqab as an oppressive patriarchical instrument no matter what the person wearing it says or thinks about it.
    Why do you think Ms Prada Bordenave is not trustworthy?

  15. хех.. вот как оказалось ..

  16. I love how these ignorant commentors think they actually know what “Islam demands” of people.

    Also, I love how they defend French racism with “integration” arguments. What does it take to integrate into France? Is raising a family, working, paying taxes, and speaking French not enough? Is there something else you gota do? pass some special test?

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