July 21, 2008

 French headscarves again

The Conseil d'Etat, the highest administrative court in France, has just confirmed the government's refusal to naturalise a Moroccan-born Muslim fundamentalist woman, Faiza Silmi. The media row concentrates on her niqab head-covering, just one step short of a burqa - distinctions here). The court's reasoning is broader:

She has taken to a radical practice of her religion, incompatible with the fundamental values of the Republic, in particular the equality of the sexes.
The report of the government's legal representative
gives some background:
.. Elle mène une vie presque recluse et retranchée de la société française : elle ne reçoit personne chez elle, le matin elle s’occupe de son ménage, se promène avec son bébé ou ses enfants, l’après midi elle va chez son père ou son beau père. Pour les courses, elle indique qu’elle peut faire des achats seule mais admet qu’elle va le plus souvent au supermarché en compagnie de son mari.... Elle vit dans la soumission totale aux hommes de sa famille, qui se manifeste tant [dans] le port de son vêtement que dans l’organisation de sa vie quotidienne.
Is gender equality a fundamental value of the French Republic?

A few dates from French history:
1938 Married women acquire legal capacity
1944 Women get the vote
1965 Married women allowed to work without their husband's permission
1970 End of the legal concepts of male head of household and paternal authority; first women admitted to the Ecole Polytechnique
1975 Abortion legalized
1991 Edith Cresson first woman prime Minister
2007 Ségolène Royal first major-party woman candidate for President.

So if gender equality is a core value of the République, it's a very recent one. No French feminist will tell you that parité has been achieved, at work, at home, or in public life. There are still plenty of conservative French families around, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, atheists, or just old codgers, where the man is still the boss.

So the decision looks like knee-jerk Jacobin antireligious prejudice, as in the ban on the hijab at school. Once you cut yourself free from the specific language of laws and constitutions and start wittering on about "fundamental values", anything goes.

I can see two defences of the government's and the court's position.

One is that the case was about naturalisation, the award of the privilege of French citizenship. Nobody was hindering Ms Fawzi from living in her odd way; she enjoyed the excellent health care system for example. You could argue that the cultural test for naturalisation should be a reasonable (not perfect) alignment with the mainstream French cultural values of today as well as reasonable (not perfect) competence in French. The problem with this line is that it's hopelessly subjective, and gets the law into areas of private life where it has no business. It would also commit the government to opposing naturalization in future for Hasidic Jews and Mormons. And how can you apply a gender equality test fairly to men?

The other argument abandons the shopping trolley entirely and concentrates, like the press, on the head-covering. Why is this so fraught? I think it's because true citizens can't be veiled from each other. In a democracy, making someone a citizen is sharing sovereignty with them, up to and including life-or-death decisions on war and peace. It's essential to be able to debate with your fellow-citizens on hard questions, and most of us can't do this fully if we can't see the faces of our interlocutors. As in education, this draws a sharp line between the hijab, which leaves the face free, and the niqab and burqa that cover all but the eyes.

It will be objected that this argument is mere romanticism, outside Iowa and Appenzell Innerrhoden. Far more political debate takes place today online than in draughty village halls. Still, there is something in it. Ms Fawzi isn't a "model citizen", she's a model subject. Obtaining citizenship could reasonably depend on some engagement in civic life. An all-women's association will do fine. And if she wants to do all the housework, that's her funeral.

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