Tricolor Xenophobia: France gave itself a black eye when it denied a Moroccan woman French citizenship because she wore the niqad, the Islamic full-body covering. (Photo by Miss France, via Flickr)
France has an odd conception of laïcité, the French version of separation of church and state: it doesn't seem to recognize the separation of home and state. What you do in your home or in your private life, legal and virtually of no consequence to anyone else though it is in every regard, may be deemed culturally unsuitable for her majesty the French Republic. Faiza Silmi, a Moroccan woman seeking French citizenship, found out to what extent: niqab-wearing Muslims need not apply.
Who Is Faiza Silmi, or "Mme M"?
Faiza Silmi is 32. In April 2000 in the beautiful southeastern Moroccan province of Ouarzazate, she married a French citizen of Moroccan origin, Karim Silmi. They moved to France and had three children. The youngest is 2, the oldest 7. They were all born in France, they all have French citizenship. In 2004, Faiza Silmi applied for French citizenship to be like the rest of the family. French law allows non-native spouses of French nationals to acquire citizenship two years after marriage, assuming the marriage hasn't gone south. On May 16, 2005, the government denied her petition, citing (in my translation of the French order) "behavior in society incompatible with the fundamental values of the French community, specifically regarding the equality of the sexes." Silmi, the government added, "cannot not be considered to be fulfilling the requirement of assimilation." The defining problem: Ms. Silmi wears the niqab, a full-body covering that leaves open only a slit for the eyes. (As Jillian C. York notes, "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.")
Faiza appealed. On June 27, the French Conseil d'État, or council of state (think of it as a combination between a high court and the American system of attorneys general who interpret the law for the executive branch) handed down its ruling. Faiza Silmi, identified as Mme. M in court papers, was denied again. The notion that she was not assimilating enough was upheld, the words of the original order rehashed for this one.
What I find remarkable about this ruling is its tone and presumption. The ruling was based on recommendations by the central government's Commissariat, itself the work of one woman (Mme Prada Bordenave) who uses dubious details about Ms. Silmi to make her case:
- The Moroccan woman, according to the report, admits to having adopted the niqab only when she moved to France. She never wore it in Morocco. But so what? Silmi also said that she felt more free to practice her Salafist version of fundamentalist Islam in France, a flattering irony the secular state did not, apparently, detect. The question is: since when is it a secular state's business to use an individual's spiritual evolution as a measuring stick of civic quality control?
- In dealings with the government, Silmi refused to remove her face covering until she was pressured to do so, for identification purposes, even though only women were present during her government interviews. According to Bordenave's report, Silmi "put it back as soon as she crossed the door, walking about that way in the corridors of the administration." Again, so what? Why the implicit suggestion of impropriety at Silmi's excess of propriety in government corridors? Were French bureaucrats offended that their daily gazes at women's calves and necklines were, in Silmi's case, obstructed?
- Bordenave's report notes that Silmi leads the life of "almost a recluse" (almost!), "in retreat from French society," because "she receives no one at her place, in the morning she cleans house, takes walks with her baby or her children, in the afternoon she goes to see her father or father in law. For her grocery shopping she says that she can do it on her own but admits that she goes to the store more often with her husband." Funny. My wife and I hardly entertain much, either. We've been busy. Does that make us recluses unworthy of American citizenship? And what's with the suggestion that visiting one's father or father in law somehow proves that the woman is at the mercy of the patriarchy?
- Yet that's the very point of the government report's conclusion: "She lives in total submission to to the men in her life... to the point that it has never occurred to her to contest that submission." Maybe not. But is the French government suggesting that Silmi's case is somehow exclusively Moroccan? That in French families (of all societies), some women aren't entirely at the mercy of men, albeit in clothing more fashionably acceptable to the Conseil d'État? That in some families women do, in fact, prefer to shop with their husbands, visit their fathers and even their father in law?
The flimsiness of the French government's case is what unravels it for what it is: rank prejudice, a reaction against the niqab in particular, and the more visible presence of Muslims in French (and European) society in general. France has about 6 million Muslims (more than the official count in the United States, though the unofficial count is likely equal to France's). The case against Silmi is the latest expression of revulsion at Eurabia.
Yet the French Urban Affairs Minister, Fadela Amara, herself a Muslim, came out blazingly in support of the ruling, as did the mass of French public opinion: The niqab, she said, "is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes and which is totally devoid of democracy."
I don't disagree entirely, though the mish-mashing of sexism with its anti-democratic effects is demonstrably untrue: it's not a niqab that's going to keep women from participating in society, politics and so on, as the increasing involvement of veiled and cover-clad women in Persian Gulf countries proves. (Let's not forget the late Benazir Bhutto, the two-time Pakistani prime minister who knew just how to match veil with feminism). I do agree that the niqab, the veil, the burqa and whatever else women are made to wear or even choose to wear under false pretenses of modesty (and even more false pretenses of Islamic purity) does, in the words of Salman Rushdie, "suck."
But that's my personal opinion. It's as irrelevant as whether a fundamentalist Muslim (or Baptist or Orthodox Jew) thinks that mid-riff bearing tank-tops "suck." The point is: wearing either a niqab or a tank top has no more bearing on other people than whether a particular individual is conservative or liberal, Buddhist or atheist. It's a matter of choice, the wearer's choice primarily (we hope). If it isn't a matter of choice, Paris isn't Jeddah: there is no vice police hounding you to wear the stuff. Ironically, now the French are willing to hound you to forbid you from wearing it, should you want to be French enough for them.
Sins of Submission
The French claim that in Ms. Silmi's case she was being forced to wear the thing. That she was a victim of patriarchal totalitarianism. In that case, their issue isn't with her. It's with the husband, the father, the father in law. Why is the husband's French citizenship OK with the authorities if it's the husband who's imposing his un-French values on his wife? Pursue that question to its logical end, and the council of state's decision self-destructs.
That's assuming that the authorities' interpretation of Ms. Silmi's case is as accurate as it is self-righteous. There's room to doubt the accuracy, once one decides to take Silmi at her word. As she told the New York Times, in an interview in her home (so much for not entertaining), “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?”
In France, it's no longer so if that right is to be a litmus test for citizenship, at least as far as women are concerned. As Samhita at Feministing noted, "no matter how many times Muslim women talk about how their religious choices may not always be directly connected to their experiences with patriarchy, no one listens."
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- Forum: Do Veils “Suck”?
- Jillian C. York: Secularism ≠ Racism