Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 10, Day 2. We are continuing with the subject of Decolonization, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I don’t have any new announcements for you today. You should continue to think about your final papers. It would be a good idea to choose your topic this week and start thinking about the argument you want to make. Remember that your one-paragraph introduction and your outline for the paper will be due on Sunday, April 19.
Today we’re looking at the aftermath of Decolonization and how the issues it raised for Europeans about human rights and inclusiveness continue to be negotiated in the 21st century. We’ll be focusing on two sources: Jane Kramer’s article “Taking the Veil,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2004, and the Tumblr “I, Too, Am Oxford,” which was created in 2014.
As we discussed earlier this week, the two decades after WWII saw the disintegration of the European global empires, as colonized peoples in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa waged successful struggles for independence. This was also a period of significant global migration. France and Britain in particular experienced huge waves of immigration from their former imperial territories. Some people came as migrant laborers, recruited by the Metropole to help with reconstruction and economic expansion. Others came as a consequence of Decolonization. Specifically, hose who fought or worked for the Metropole during the period of conflict were granted citizenship and the right to relocate to Europe afterward. This group tended to be more secular and Europeanized. For both groups, the transition was rocky. Immigrants of color faced open discrimination and often could only find low-paying menial jobs and substandard housing that white Europeans didn’t want.
Some immigrants of color managed to prosper and rise into the middle class. But many others were held back by systemic racism. Subsequent generations, those born in Britain and France with birthright citizenship, lost patience with the unfulfilled promises made to their parents and grandparents. Many rejected the immigrant generation’s faith in the government, and some turned to other sources of identity, like religion or cultural movements. One of the themes that I hope comes across in these sources is that the most recent generation of post-colonial European of color is demanding more from their fellow-citizens than before. Like Simone de Beauvoir, they are asserting that legal equality is not enough; true equality requires social and cultural respect, as well.
One more thing that’s important to know for context is that in France, one of the major issues in play is the French government’s commitment of secularity, or laïcité. As Kramer explains, laïcité is a complex concept and its roots go back to the French Revolution, when it served as a way to push back against the power of the Catholic church. But in contemporary context, laïcité is mostly used to argue that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear headscarves outside religious settings. Kramer wrote this article in response to a ban on wearing religious symbols in schools, which France enacted in March 2004. This law was not specifically worded to single out Muslims wearing headscarves, but it did disproportionately affect them. For that reason, French people usually call it “the anti-veil law.” In 2010, France enacted an even more stringent ban. The new law explicitly bans anyone from wearing a veil that covers their face in public, which has a much broader effect. As you read and think through Kramer’s article, it’s worth asking yourself whether you would evaluate the situation differently if the issue was not whether a person like Djamila could work in a school or participate in certain activities, but whether they could leave the house while adhering to their religious principles.
A note of caution: This is a complex topic! I am especially sorry that we are not getting to work thorough it together face to face. As you are reading each other’s comments and thinking about what you would like to write, I urge you to be very aware of your choices of language. “Islam” is a religion, and those who practice it are “Muslim.” “Islamist” is a political term. So, for example, Djamila is Muslim, but she is not an Islamist. Please also keep in mind: our purpose in this discussion is not to define or assess the value of Islam as a religion. We have not read any sources that give us a basis on which to do so. If you make comments of this nature, I will remove them from the blog. That being said, our purpose is to have a vibrant discussion of how France is dealing with the issue of integrating its Muslim citizens. I welcome your thoughts on that!
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Kramer begins by focusing on a woman named Djamila who wears a veil. What is Djamila’s story? Why has she decided to wear a veil? She doesn’t see her veil as a political act, but it becomes political in that it changes her relationship to friends, neighbors, and employers. How does this situation add to our understanding of the multiple meanings that veils can have, which we started developing in our reading of Fanon? What would Fanon say about why France is still so focused on the question of veils in the 21st century?
2. Kramer tells us Djamila’s life “narrows” after she takes the veil. This raises the question of whether others are excluding Djamila or she is excluding herself. How would you answer this question? How does this question itself demonstrate the complexities of building a multicultural society?
3. Kramer devotes time in this article to exploring the frustrations of French-born Algerians, and how that make them vulnerable to radical Muslim preachers. Can you unpack this situation? How do you evaluate it? The French government seems to think that banning prominent religious symbols like veils is a way to combat the spread of radical Islam. Based on your reading, what other policies might you suggest? What can mainstream French citizens do to help integrate Muslims into society?
4. Near the end of p.65, Kramer recounts that the issue of veils is particularly difficult for politicians on the left. What makes this complex for them? What’s the difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion? Where is the balance between free expression and national unity?
5. Kramer interviews a fundamentalist Muslim leader named Fouad Alaoui. He asserts that the French model of girls who stay in school and become professionals is not the only option, and that the French government should respect Muslim girls’ choice to wear the veil, drop out of high school, and live a traditional life. This is a tough one; it’s hard for us to accept this coming from a radical preacher, especially when we know that some women face coercion. But what if a Muslim woman herself told you she had freely chosen this? What if a religious Christian or Jewish woman told you she had chosen to dress modestly, leave school, and live a traditional life? Would you be more likely to accept such an argument in that case? Is it appropriate for the government to get involved in a woman’s personal choices on these issues?
6. Kramer also interviews some French feminist activists, who take different views on this issue. Make a close reading of the section that begins on p.68 and continues to p.70. (The first page is unnumbered, but it has a cartoon on it titled “Napquest.”) Can you unpack the feminists’ arguments for and against the ban on veils in schools? What complicating issues come out in the course of these arguments? Which one do you find more compelling and why?
7. On the last page, Kramer writes about Ghislaine Hudson, the principal of a large high school outside Paris. Hudson is concerned that her students seem to segregate themselves, despite her efforts to promote integration. What is her view of girls wearing veils at school? Do you agree or disagree with her perspective? What other factors might be getting in the way of her students interacting with each other? In what ways is this school a microcosm of France?
8. Let’s return to the principle of laïcité (secularity). After reading this article, what are your thoughts on how to balance respecting the right to religious expression with protecting French secularism? Is it fair to ask Muslims—or any cultural distinct group within French society—to prioritize their French identity over other parts of their identity? In your analysis, does the wearing of religious identity-markers like veils actually present a threat to the French state?
9. This last question is more of a thought experiment. It occurred to me because find ourselves living in a pandemic, being advised by the CDC to wear masks when we go outside. In other words, we are all now in a situation where we must violate France’s 2010 ban on covering your face in public as a matter of good public health. How does this situation affect your thoughts on anti-veiling laws?
Our second source for today is “I, Too, Am Oxford.” This Tumblr deals with the theme of microaggressions. We may not all be familiar with this term, so I’ll define it for you. A microaggression is a statement that does not directly express a discriminatory sentiment (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.), but relies on discriminatory assumptions. For example, the first post you encounter the sign reads, “You’re mixed-race? D’you have identity issues?” This question rests on the racist assumption that a mixed-race person must necessarily be unhappy, because there is something “unnatural” about their parentage.
This Tumblr was created by students at Oxford University who regularly encounter microaggressions in their lives at the university. Their goal is to combat microaggressions by making their colleagues aware of their discriminatory assumptions. Here is what I’d like you to do:
1. Carefully study the images in this Tumblr. Find one image that you find most compelling and explain why it is harmful. Make sure to explicitly identify the discriminatory assumption at work. I think this is a productive exercise, to not only recognize that a statement is harmful, but to be able to explain fully how it does harm.
2. If there is an image that you do not understand, please ask! And please explain to each other in a positive way. A person who is admitting confusion is making themself vulnerable; please respect that vulnerability by replying straightforwardly. That way, we open up conversation, rather than shutting it down.
3. What makes microaggressions so harmful? What makes them hard to combat? In your analysis, is the “I, Too, Am Oxford” project an effective way to combat them? What else can we do, in our college community, to fight microaggressions and make all students feel welcome?