By Saideh Jamshidi
Some Westerners, especially in France, view Muslim women who wear a hijab or head scarf, as backward-looking, oppressed by religion and unsophisticated. Such views have intensified after the Brussels terrorist attack. France, a country in anger following the ISIS attacks in Paris and fearful of the growth of Muslim extremism, is on its way to declare a cultural war against the status of women.
Just recently, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stirred up controversy when he pledged to support a bill that favors a ban against wearing headscarves at universities. Before him, the women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossingnol, criticized Western brands, including Marks and Spencer, as promoting “the confinement of women’s body” in referring to their new full-cover burkini swimsuit. And, less than two weeks ago, Pierre Bergé, cofounder of YVL, condemned Western fashion designers, including Dolce Gabbana and Uniqlo for creating dresses for Muslim women.
If those incidents are not enough, Air France female flight attendants and pilots refused to resume regular flights to Tehran after eight years. They were upset to wear the most conservative version of their uniform, a pantsuit with a knee-length jacket and a headscarf to cover their hair.
Secularism and France are inseparable. It passed a law in 2004 banning any religious expression, including wearing headscarf in public schools. Another law in 2010 banned the burqa (full veil) in public arenas.
But when a country is angry and scared, it goes under extensive measures to protect its citizens. How far will France go before she turns its back against her Western democratic values in the name of secularism? Or, does she want to become a symbol of resistance and intolerance against a specific religion or people? To answer these questions, France can learn from Germany, and German people’s collective guilt — a notion attributed to the German public for its pervasive role in the Holocaust and World War II.
By learning from Germany — a country which perpetuated anti-Semitism sentiment and eventually lost the battle, both intellectually and physically — France can protect itself from going on that same route.
First, France will shoot herself in the foot if she continues believing in this divisive cultural mindset. If the country is the part of Western democracy and Western enlightenment, France cannot act in such an oppressive manner. Western values support the belief that an orderly society can only exist in which freedom is preserved. With such increasingly manic behavior towards French Muslim citizens, France violates their freedom of expression.
Second, France is setting a bad example of how to deal with and live with minority culture in Europe. History tells us that if Europe continues in such direction, the outcome will be devastating.
Third, the answer to fear is not more fear. As John F. Kennedy once said “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” The answer to fear is to recognize the fear, address it and dissipate it. If nothing else, France can learn from the U.S., and its response to fear:
Simply put, the U.S.’ attack and invasion of Iraq after 9/11 created more chaos and more war that the Americans could cope with.
But, it seems French are smarter! The Collective Against Islamophobia in France institute (CCIF) issued a news release stating that it was bringing a class-action lawsuit against Minister Rossignol for her statement. And, in order to address Muslim women’s personal relationship with veil, Myriam Marzouki’s new play “It’s our Business” (“Ce Qui Nous Regarde”) will open next week in Dijon, France.
I think Nathaniel Branden, American-Canadian writer and psychotherapist put it so well, “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” With what is happening in France, we can hope France is moving toward acceptance and not the French guilt.
Saideh Jamshidi is an Iranian-American journalist, and founder of Goltune, an online digital magazine focusing on Muslim women fashion and lifestyle.
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