Saturday, January 15, 2011

Most fundamental right

This opinion piece, from the World Affairs Journal in which Pascale Bruckner defends the recent French ban on the burqua, is from a few months ago, and has doubtless been discussed elsewhere. This debate has been written about brilliantly (in very different modes, for instance, by Joan Scott and Cecile Laborde), and I haven't got anything in particular to add, except to stand back and gape at the following double-whammy:

An individual’s most fundamental right is to free himself or herself from his or her origins: Muslims should be able to leave Islam, become atheist, not observe Ramadan, or convert to Buddhism or to Christianity in the same way that Christians can fall away from their faith and shop for other forms of belief. (In fact, the French press have noted many cases of Muslim aggression against other Muslims who chose not to have children; and as for apostates, they routinely face death threats.) The burqa (or the North African niqab or the Middle Eastern hijab) is a direct challenge to the ideal of laicization since it dramatically violates the principle of equality between men and women.

An individual's most fundamental right is to be set free from their origins? This seems like a pretty clear example of the internal tensions of contemporary French republicanism coming to the fore in statements that are either obvious falsehoods or can only be taken in a radically revolutionary sense. And then there is the breathtaking association of "the ideal of laicization" with "the principle of equality between men and women." Even leaving aside the question of whether, in fact, passing a law banning a kind of clothing worn only by women is indeed forwarding this principle, the idea that French laicite means gender equality cannot possibly be more than, say, 30 years old. Certainly there was very little sense that the 1905 separation or other 3rd Republic policies to remove the Catholic Church from public life, were pursued with any acceptance of gender equality--indeed precisely the opposite is arguably the case.

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