Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Drama at the Chateau of Versailles

The French President has re-kindled the debate over Hijab at the Chateau of Versailles. Breaking one and a half century old tradition, Sarkozy addressed the French Parliament, greatly upsetting the opposition, which criticized the speech as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Like Louis XIV. The Sun King was the archetypal absolute monarch, who ruled France from 1643-1715. People were not allowed to knock on his door in the Chateau of Versailles. Instead, they had to gently scratch on the door, until the permission to enter was granted. As a result, many courtiers grew long fingernails. Sarkozy is styling himself as a modern day Louis XIV. [Major political parties like the Greens and Communists refused to attend the Chateau of Versailles event and the Socialists left early, saying that the venue for the address smacked of monarchy and a thirst for power]

Not surprisingly Sarkozy, who famously likes his pictures photo-shopped to look good [Paris Match had to retouch photos of Sarkozy in order to erase a love handle], attacked the concept and culture of Hijab in his Chateau of Versailles policy speech. "It will not be welcome on French soil," he began, sounding every bit like an authoritarian demagogue that he is, ever ready to trade away civil liberties for political gains. “We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity." Sarkozy has indeed chosen to fight a very wrong battle.

Two things are going to come out of it immediately. One – the decision will stigmatize Muslims at a time when France needs to do more in its fight against discrimination in the job market, which had led so many Muslim youth to feel forgotten by French society. When France needed their erstwhile colonial subjects to lay train roads or dig tunnels for them back in the 1940's and 50's they got them to work like mules. The immigrants significantly contributed towards French nation building*. Only when their second generation grew up in Paris suburbs and started attending schools, the French went cold in their feet. It so smacks of racism.

Two – we are now sure why Sarkozy flunked grades in school and college before he obtained his baccalauréat. He continues to not comprehend this simple idea about the diversity of cultures. Given that the concept of laicite [secularism] is sacred in France, the point is whether women are forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily out of their own will, and whether wearing the Hijab undermines French secularism. It does not. Like the same way Mr President has “no issues” with nude photos of his wife because he thinks the pictures are tasteful – and importantly -- the CHOICE is Carla’s, the CHOICE to don a scarf should be the sole discretion of a Muslim woman.

Modern states have no business telling women how not to dress. When we do not feel intimidated by a topless girl walking around a beach, do we really need to fret at a girl covering her hair? I think there is something profoundly hypocritical about banning Hijab in the name of pseudo-secularism and gender equality -- while the French government continues to subsidize private education for that globally influential misogynist religion -- the Catholic Church -- at a higher rate per pupil than public schools.

Sarkozy’s initiative has even his own cabinet split in the middle. The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, believes such a ban will only create tensions. It will isolate Muslims. France is home to five million Muslims. Hijab has always been a cultural symbol and Muslim women have worn it for more than 1,430 years. The dress was only put on trial after the events of September 11. Sarkozy only reinforces the paranoia.

You can’t claim to be liberal and ban individual choice. The French – and Europeans largely – have come to practice an absurd form of secularism which has indeed come to rubbish everything that secularism stands for. We seem to be at such a point in history where we are seen to care too much about the rights of beetles and houseflies while rubbishing the inherent beauty of human co-existence and liberty. When governments go all-out to abolish cultural symbolism close to the belief system of a billion and a half people around the globe, the cherished human rights, naturally, go up in holy smoke. Like Jeanne d'Arc. That was 1431. This is 2009.


* As the major colonial power after Britain, France could call on a potential workforce from what is called the Maghreb [North-West Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia], certain countries in Sub-Saharan Africa [Senegal], Indochina [South-East Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] and the DOM-TOM [Départements d'outre-mer and Térritoires d'outre-mer] like Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana [in the Caribbean]. The vast majority of these workers were from Algeria, the jewel in the crown of the French colonial empire.
[Source: The University of Sunderland,UK]