Debating the morality of Rachida Dati

Debating the morality of Rachida Dati January 12, 2009

Ms. Rachida Dati, France’s first female Muslim minister, has been criticized for returning to work only five days after giving birth to a baby girl. The media seems to favor the public view that Dati’s decision is a reckless political stunt that makes light of the responsibility of mothers everywhere. Dati, half-Algerian and half-Moroccan, is the second of 12 children. She’s been the center of media attention, primarily because she’s style-conscious, attractive and single, ever since France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed her justice minister in May 2007. This would be problematic if Dati did not crave the attention, but her decision to agree to fashion shoots in popular French magazines is evidence of her belief that femininity and politics can go hand-in-hand.

(Coincidentally, Sarah Palin, another influential woman known to mix glamour and politics also chose to go back to work less than a week after giving birth).

Pierre-Philippe, Getty Images
Rachida Dati. Photo: Pierre-Philippe, Getty Images

The media’s focus on her now is no surprise, although the nature has changed from tabloid gossip about her designer duds and competition with Sarkozy’s wife, to her morality. Did she do the right thing by going back to work so soon after giving birth?

Some blogs claim she set a bad example for women by neglecting her daughter. Others accuse Dati of undermining the feminist movement by refusing to take the 16-week maternity leave working mothers are entitled to.

The debate over Dati’s decision is valid and warranted, especially since gender equality in the workplace is far from perfect. It also brings attention to the plight of single women, less privileged than Dati, who are forced to take maternity leave because they can’t afford daycare. I’m very curious about one question the media doesn’t seem to be asking: Isn’t it bizarre that a Muslim woman in the public sphere has given birth out of wedlock?

The media has not focused on the reaction of Muslim women for example, or whether her family, who once forced her to marry, has accepted the child.

In raising this question, I don’t intend to reduce Dati’s accomplishments: that a Muslim woman from an oppressed immigrant community can rise to become not only the first woman to hold the Office of Justice Minister, but the first North African to do so is extraordinary. Normally, this would be a HUGE success for Muslim women and the somewhat ghettoized Muslims in France. Yet Dati’s success cannot be so easily celebrated, because her actions are not consistent with mainstream Islam: according to shari’ah, sex outside marriage (zina) is forbidden in Islam.

To the Muslim community, her sin is emphasized whenever the media speculates about her baby’s daddy.  Dati does not seem to be concerned by this traditionalist view of her pregnancy, and from her rush to return to work and show off her daughter to fans, it is obvious she is not embarrassed by what she calls a “complicated situation.”

Should she be?

Should Muslims undermine her success because of her obvious disregard of Islamic law, or should it be celebrated as revolutionary, in terms of a Muslim woman’s fundamental liberty?

Ultimately, the painful question boils down to this: Is Dati courageous or is she ridiculous?

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