Currently, we are seeing the influx of many Muslim people of all nationalities into Europe. Some are a result of conflict in Africa and the Middle East, while others may come for other reasons such as employment. These new and different cultures are often times seen as at odds with the “European” culture – the values and ideologies set forth by the European Union and many of the western countries that are a part of the EU.
There is a problem of Europeans grouping all followers of Islam together, even though they might come from very different cultures and countries. To provide a similar example, one would likely not label an American person and a German person who both happen to be Christian together as “Christians.” It’s more likely that they would be labeled by their respective country of origin. So, why do Europeans generally lump together Muslims from a multitude of countries?
The authors Zemni and Parker of Chapter 13: Islam, the European Union, and the Challenge of Multiculturalism of the book Islam, Europe’s Second Religion, argue that it is easier to see a migrant’s presence as problematic when it is related to cultural/religious norms, rather than a person’s nationality or income level. With this viewpoint, it becomes a struggle between “us” – the Europeans – and “them” – the Muslim migrants. According to Zemni and Parker, while nationality or legal citizenship can be changed, “cultures are seen as fixed.” Thus, many Europeans hold the view that Muslims will never be capable of integrating into the secular European society because their culture – fixed at birth – cannot be changed or altered.
This viewpoint can be very problematic in thinking about Islam in Europe. Islam is seen as rejecting European culture and is therefore a threat to European values. One example of this is seen in France, where there is debate over allowing headscarves in public.
In France, the separation of church and state also means that “conspicuous” signs of religion are outlawed in the public sector, such as in the workplace or in schools. “Discreet” signs of religion, however, are allowed. This law is known as “laïcité.” Interestingly, Wallach, author of Politics of the Veil, notes that the French word for “conspicuous” can also have a sexual connotation – in the way that a low-cut shirt is conspicuous and noticeable.
Thus, Wallach points out, there is a dichotomy between the conspicuousness – the obviousness – of a headscarf as a religious symbol, and the conspicuousness – the sexuality – of the headscarf. For Muslims, the headscarf is a sign of modesty. Some Muslims, recognizing the inherent sexuality of women and men and believing that a person’s honor relies on modesty, have decided to address the issue by covering the women’s bodies.
However, to many Europeans, the headscarf is seen as a symbol that brings attention to the sexuality and gender of a woman in a negative manner. In this way, the French view the headscarf as “conspicuous” in both meanings of the word. The French, along with other western countries, preach that all people are equal.
Opponents of the headscarf in France cite many reasons why the headscarf should not be allowed to be worn in France. While some argue that it breaks the rules of laïcité, others believe that the headscarf demeans women and takes away certain rights. One French critic even argued that the headscarf takes away the femininity of women, as women cannot be feminine without the visual appreciation of their bodies by men. In another comment on headscarves, Chirac notes that some men see them as an “aggression of women” in denying men their natural right to “see behind the veil.”
Throughout the argument, we see the insistence of the French that their gender equality system is “universally desirable” and that no woman would choose to wear a headscarf if she was not made to. In a quote from the French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, “Let us bring pressure to bear so that the rights of French women apply also to immigrant women.” In this statement, he is talking about the right of equality between men and women and the right for women to wear whatever they choose.
Beneath this “equality” lies the question that many want to ignore: If we (men and women) are all the same, then why has gender been such an obstacle to equality? Why do we still see examples of inequality in society? Wallach’s main thesis in Chapter 5 of his book argues that “Islam’s insistence on recognizing the differences posed by sexuality revealed more than the French wanted to see about the limits of their system.”
In my opinion, the rights of French women do apply to immigrant, Muslim women. In acknowledging that women have rights to equality, we must also acknowledge that all women have the right to choose what they wear. If Muslim women choose to cover their bodies, rather than expose them, then they are exercising their right and practicing what they believe. What a woman chooses to wear is inconsequential to the persistent issue of gender inequality, as “uncovered bodies are no more a guarantee of equality than covered ones.” Gender inequality runs much deeper than what a woman wears, and we as a society should be focusing on these deeper issues.
Hunter. Islam, Europe’s Second Religion.
Wallach. Politics of the Veil.