This past Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal announced that France had followed through with its plans to ban the wearing of the burka: full body robes and head covering worn by some Muslim women. Wearing the burka, or indeed just the traditional headscarf has been a site of tremendous conflict, not just in France but throughout Europe over the past few years. This is so, perhaps most especially when devout women choose of their own free will to express their commitment to their faith in such a manner. To be fair, the new French legislation doesn’t specifically single out Islam, rather it bans any public face covering (excluding such professions as surgeons and riot police) as a potential security risk. Yet anyone who has been following coverage of the growing tensions in France with its sizeable and ever-expanding Muslim population can have no doubt as to whom the true target of such legislation was. This ban by the way, would also apply to foreigners visiting the country. More disturbingly, nationals who disobey might well be required to attend government sponsored courses on “republican values” as well as facing significant fines. (1)
Of course one could say that over and aside from infringing on personal religious freedom, such a ban unfairly penalizes women, who would be among the majority of those directly impacted. Proponents of such a ban often cite protecting women from forced submission to such practices as a motivating factor in their position, a stance which, to my mind at least, actually diminishes the voice and agency of those women who consciously choose to wear the headscarf or full hijab, not out of patriarchal coercion, but out of personal commitment to their faith. After all, when you acknowledge that a person has personal agency, eventually you have to face the fact that the person may do something with that agency with which you disagree!. By banning this very physical expression of one’s religion, those who see it as a necessary expression of faith are marginalized, facing the choice of obeying the State or obeying what they see as the dictates of their God. Such is the conundrum France, and many other parts of Europe, are now facing. The question, for this article at least, is why should we as Pagans or Heathens care? What is this to us?
I would posit that we need to watch this situation in Europe and at home very carefully. Heathenry and Paganism aren’t yet serious blips on our government’s radar but that is changing as our numbers grow. To outsiders, many of our practices can be misunderstood, especially by those already primed by religious phobia or fundamentalism to think the worst of that which is different (in the case of America translate that as non-Christian).
I’m not trying to sound alarmist. Nor do I think that we should temper our practices to accommodate those outside of our faiths. I’m saying that this is something we need to be aware of and to watch closely. I know that while I don’t feel the need to follow any particular dress code as an expression of my devotion to my Gods, I do mark my body (I have a full back tattoo as an offering to Odin, among other things) and in my practice as a Northern Tradition shaman, this is important. I don’t want to think about what I would do if put in the situation where I had to choose between doing what I think right by my Gods, and obeying an arbitrary law designed to curtail the outward forms of my religious expression. Regardless of what we might think of Islam, or about the wearing of the burka, that’s what these regulations do: they curtail religious expression; they curtail modes of religious expression that aren’t hurting anyone else.
While I understand fears for security and safety, I think that in many cases using threat of security is a thinly veiled but very effective propaganda tool to rationalize religious discrimination and I have to question whether Heathenry and Paganism are organized or cohesive enough to withstand a similar outward assault. The past ten years have seen a rise in religious fundamentalism across the board, not just within Islam, or Christianity. Additionally, there is a growing conservatism grounded in fear that is having a deep impact on our governments. I think that it’s naïve to assume that this won’t eventually impact us as well.
Think about it: in 1999 a man who would later become president of the United States tried to deny religious freedom to soldiers in his state. In response to the debacle at Fort Hood, Texas, in which Wiccans and Pagans in the service had to fight to maintain the right to practice their faith, George W. Bush commented outright that he didn’t think witchcraft was a religion and went on to say that he hoped the military would reconsider its position …i.e. its position allowing Pagan soldiers to actively practice their faith. (2) Senators at the time, called Wicca and Paganism ‘irreligious’ and argued that its practice should not be permitted in the military. (3). I really have no faith that attitudes have changed for the better all that much in ten years.
Furthermore, there have been many cases in recent years of Wiccans and Pagans losing custody of their children solely because of their religion (and while many of the most egregious judgments are later overturned, that doesn’t mitigate the ensuing trauma). Just lately, there’s been an upswing in petty legislation against things like divination and psychic services. (4) This latter may seem a small thing, but to my mind, it’s part of a pattern and it points to a growing awareness of and reaction against Paganisms (divination, for instance, is an important practice in some Paganisms, including my own). Just this week, wildhunt.org ran an article about a case in Canada where a man offering to work magic for money was accused not just of fraud but of ‘pretending to practice witchcraft.’ (5) Read the full article at http://www.wildhunt.org for a discussion on why this is so disturbing.
Ultimately, we need to be wary. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are practitioners of minority religions and there are people out there who would deny us our right to practice our faith. Islam has over 1 billion practitioners in the world today, most of whom practice their religion peacefully. (6) Yet, we have countries legislating against certain personal, non-violent expressions of this faith.
I think Dana Eilers said it best in a 2001 Witchvox article: “The preservation of one’s legal rights cannot be taken for granted. This is, as most minority groups can attest, an ongoing struggle which requires sacrifice and constant vigilance. We, as Pagans, are not the first to undergo this struggle. We will not be the last.”(7) Good words. Strong words. Words we should take to heart and remember, because no one else is going to attend to our freedom but us.
- “The Wall Street Journal,” Wednesday, September 15, 2010, vol. CCLVI no. 64, p. A1, A12.
- http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/bushwicca.htm and http://www.teenwitch.com/ESSAYS/FORTHOOD.HTM