Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Equality, Liberty, Fraternity

With fully ten percent of France's population now Muslim, and with the current climate of extremism among some elements of Muslim society everywhere, it's little wonder that the government of France has developed a facial tic in encountering a very real problem of native-born young French people becoming socially and religiously radicalized. Minorities breed resentment among themselves when they feel - and often there are very good reasons for them to feel this way - that they have been marginalized as inferior to the majority.

It isn't supposed to be this way in a pluralist society dedicated to egalitarianism. And in spirit it isn't that way. But in reality, when education is being pursued, and jobs are being sought, and entitlements found lacking, minorities do tend to get the short end of the stick. Human beings are fallible and much as most people would deny they practise discriminatory attitudes toward those not of their social standing, education level, ethnic preference, religious adherence, we do.

The very visible and distracting vision of a woman self-selecting for an appearance of subservience to men serves as a social shock to those dedicated to equality between the genders. Patriarchal societies tend to impose humiliating and human-rights-abusing conditions on the women who are dependent on men for their well-being and that of their offspring, to keep them in line. It's all very well for many to claim that Islamic precepts don't demand the separation of the sexes, but tribal society does.

It is a miserable manner to present oneself in society, fully wrapped, completely encumbered by a shroud that moves along with the woman, shielding her for intimate appraisal, but not from the glare of resentful eyes. Simply put, it is degrading to women to insist that they cover themselves to protect them from the lustful glare of men's imaginations. Men insisting on ownership of their women as a rightful possession degrade women.

Yet women are complicit in this condition which requires them to be fully garbed in oppressive Islamic dress following a code that is social and tribal in nature, but claiming to be religiously-required. Muslim women who see themselves as religious yet proudly independently feminist decry those women who imprison themselves willingly in burkas and the niqab, subservient to the demands of the men in their lives. In upsetting French social convention they feel they liberate themselves psychically.

It is women who are held to blame for sexual attacks in some societies, not the men who attack them. Under the anonymity of a full-garb body covering women are held not to elicit the attention of lustful men. Who are incapable of controlling their urges, who are held to be reliant on women to cover themselves by convention to ensure their safety. These societies don't caution men that they are responsible for their actions. And France has its work cut out to turn back the tide of Islamist backwardness.

In Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, college principals are now insisting that women refrain from dressing in "vulgar Western" clothing to prevent "eve-teasing", an Indian term for sexual harassment. Jeans are banned, as are sleeveless blouses, tight tops, miniskirts and high heels, as being provocative. Women are enjoined to wear traditional saris or pyjamas; long baggy shirts and pants.

Those societies incapable of passing laws and enforcing them, to hold men to account for their unwillingness to bridle their urges do a disservice to themselves, as much as to the women within their society. France is perfectly right to, in the words of Nicholas Sarkozy, declare the burka to be "not welcome", an assault on women's human rights, and intolerable in a society dedicated to equality.

Turkey, an Islamic country, has long had a prohibition against head coverings on women in institutes of higher learning and in government buildings. Turkish women are banned from covering their hair for religious reasons. Secularist females resist the growing trend among women in Turkey to wear head scarfs, claiming it hinders modernization and reverses the momentum gained by Turkish women over the years.

The country is divided in viewing the head scarf as 'religious', a sign of 'freedom', and one of 'oppression'. Many women in Turkey struggle to convince their detractors that their choice of wearing a head scarf is an indication of their freedom, while those who criticize them insist they are willing participants in a repressive gesture of male domination over women.

In Saudi Arabia women conventionally wear long black chadors, covering even their faces. In Iran hair and body remains covered, the face free. The conservative AK Party now in the ascendancy in Turkey proposed a constitutional amendment to lift the head scarf ban in universities. Their Islamist agenda is obvious; the high court threw out their proposed amendment.

The founding father of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, believing religion to be a hindrance to modernization and social progress, invoked a secular Turkey. His view and his work is stealthily being undone by the reigning Islamist party in the country. But Turkey is an Islamic country, France is not.

And France, like any other European country with an increasing Muslim presence, finds it offensive to women to have them imprisoned in an all-enveloping garment proclaiming their
social fragility and provocative offensiveness to male sexual intemperance.

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