Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Muslim Women in France

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You see tons of Muslim women in Paris near the Institut du Monde Arabe on the fancy Left Bank. They're mostly young and scholarly, and charge down the sidewalks with colored headscarves, or black hijabs and abayas floating behind them like capes.

They remind me of young queers taking to the street in their uniforms of leather bracelets and Doc Martens with pink and black triangles on everything, part fashion choice, part remembrance, hopefully even, a symbol of resistance. Because sometimes, if you're lucky, you can take the sign and means of oppression, and transform it into a declaration of war.

Not always though. It's enough to imagine what those pink and black triangles would mean on New York queers if dykes and fags across the river in New Jersey were actually obligated to wear them, embodying discrimination. Then, would the Nazi's pink or black triangle on your Manhattan leather jacket be an act of solidarity, or stupid ignorance? Are we even allowed ignorance any more in our tweet and blog world?

The double-edged nature of symbols arises every time some American jumps into the debate about "the right" of Muslim women to wear a headscarf or body-covering abaya, usually reducing the complicated social debate, especially in France, to a matter of religious freedom. Women should do what they want. Anybody considering restrictions must be a euro-centric Islamophobe.

Besides the problem that such critics erase Muslims that are opponents of "covering," the truth is religion is the least of the matter. In Paris, anyway. On the one hand, you do have those mostly young Muslim women of the scholarly Left Bank wearing headscarves, abayas, and sometimes even the burkha, partly in religious devotion, but often it seems like a flag of cultural difference that they wave at the charging French bull in a big fuck you.

And if they were the only Muslim women in France, maybe I'd say fashion, religion, who cares? It's not worth wasting our breath.

Unfortunately, cross the real and metaphorical river Seine and those little fabric squares covering hair, or bodies, even faces, have little to do with god, or even culture, but misogyny in its purest form. A whole range of women are actively coerced by brothers, boyfriends, fathers, even sons into "covering" in public, and they enforce their will with threats, beatings, rape, and the occasional old favorite of acid sprayed in any naked female face.

Pressure to comply seems worst in the banlieus, in the suburbs, where segregation and poverty are at their most intense, and angry young men are looking for ways to assert themselves. But you see it often enough in the poorer neighborhoods inside the city--the women creeping down the sidewalks behind the men that effectively own them. Tiny girls already in scarves, veiled seething teenagers, and their future selves -- not stylish liberated women at the fancy Left Bank Institut du Monde Arabe, but sacks of exhausted flesh broken with childbearing and hard work. There's nothing sanctifying or empowering at all about the ugly black dirty drapes that hide older Muslim women as they stagger down the street.

When I see them I want to ban all the abaya, hijabs, and headscarves I see. And give a good hard kick in the balls to the young men and boys with their degenerate fathers sauntering several yards in front of the women they despise as trash. I also want to yank aside those Left Bank Muslim girls and remind them that the symbols they're obviously playing with haven't been fully transformed. Black covering robes and scarves may work as a nose-thumbing gesture to the predominantly Christian West. But as a tool against the mostly masculine forces that have imposed them, they're not doing anything subversive at all.

The logical conclusion of "covering" women is a mere 3485.1 miles east in Afghanistan where that piece of compromised shit Hamid Karzai is throwing females to the Taliban wolves in hopes of improving his election chances there. The Shiite Personal Status Law he allowed to pass into effectiveness in July allows husbands to starve their wives if they fail to obey sexual demands, requires women to get male permission to leave the house, tolerates rape if the rapist coughs up dough for the girl or marries her. It strips women of rights to their own children, granting sole guardianship to their fathers and grandfathers.

While this law theoretically only enslaves Afghanistan's three million Shiite women, a huge amount of Afghan women of all origins have protested because it is expected to have an impact on all future legislation regarding family and women's rights.

Given that reality, one thing at least is clear. That it's not more freedom of religion most Muslim women need, but freedom from the monsters that use it to keep them safely hidden and in chains.

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