Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A hymen, a veil, and France

Mona Eltahawy, writing for Diplomatic Traffic, discusses two controversial and contradictory verdicts in France that touch on human rights and religion.

NEW YORK -- Are Muslim women more than the sum of their hymens and veils? Judging by two bizarre verdicts in France, the answer is a resounding “non.”

A verdict in April essentially punished a Muslim woman for not being a virgin before marriage. The second denied citizenship last month to a woman who wears a head-to-toe veil, or niqab, and who lives in “total submission” to the men in her family -- punishing her for being a doormat.

So basically one woman wasn’t submissive enough and the other was too submissive.

Confused? Those cases in the country that’s home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim community highlight a disturbing trend in the never-ending duel of “Islam vs. West”: women as the soft targets of both radical Muslims and secular governments.

My kindest explanation for the unprecedented rejection of a Moroccan woman’s citizenship application is that the French justice system was taken for a ride by that Muslim husband who pushed to annul his marriage because his wife wasn’t the virgin she’d claimed to have been. That verdict stunned France as a crude abuse of justice, ‘vindicating’ the hypocrisy at the heart of conservative religious views on women and chastity.

The Quran preaches chastity for men and women, but the ultra-conservative obsession with women, sadly prevalent in many Muslim countries (and the lack of a male hymen) means only women are expected to abide by the prohibition on extra-marital sex. This obsession with virginity is shallow at best and deadly at worst.

So the French court sent a message to Muslim women: Though they live in a secular democracy guaranteeing women’s rights, even in France their virginity is paramount. Instead of throwing the case out as antithetical to everything France is supposed to represent, the court sided with retrograde views of women, and the verdict -- a coup for radical views -- was cultural relativism at its worst.

Now, in what seemed a desperate bid to outdo the damage of the virginity verdict, the judicial system swung so far back they scored an own goal in the case of Faiza X, the woman deemed too “submissive” to be French.

Instead of going after the men who abuse the system -- the husband in the virginity case and the men in Faiza X’s life to whom she was described as being in total submission -- the immigration officials picked on her.

Her application for French nationality was rejected because she had "adopted a radical practice of her religion incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably with the principle of equality of the sexes, and therefore she does not fulfill the conditions of assimilation" listed in the country's Civil Code as a requirement for gaining French citizenship.

Yes, citizens should comply with principles of gender equality, but instead of going after this woman why not go after the men who have made sure "she leads a life almost of a recluse, cut off from French society," leaving the house only to walk with her children or visit relatives, as her interview with immigration officials revealed.

Perhaps France should also go after the Muslim men who refuse to allow male doctors to treat their wives. Perhaps it should revoke the citizenships of the men who keep their daughters from school and ferry them back “home,” say, to North Africa, into forced marriages.

Faiza X, who is married to a French national, arrived in France in 2000, speaks good French and has three children born in France. She explained to immigration officials that she and her husband adhere to the Salafi form of Islam, an ultra-orthodox school practiced most infamously in Saudi Arabia -- where women are prohibited from driving and are treated like minors who need a male guardian’s permission to do the most basic things.

Law professor Daniele Lochak told Le Monde that to follow Faiza X’s case to its logical conclusion would mean that women whose partners beat them were also not worthy of being French. Sadly, she’s right.

Faiza X’s life represents the radical male Islamists’ ability to have their cake and eat it too. They enjoy the advantages of secular democratic citizenship, but insist on keeping their wives and daughters suspended in a bubble of existence that crudely mimics “life back home.”

To a Muslim and a feminist like me, Faiza X’s life seems miserable. She lives “in total submission to the men in her family... and the idea of contesting this submission doesn't even occur to her," as her government case report reads. And she is shrouded inside a style of clothing that simply terrifies me.

The council's ruling did not refer to Faiza's niqab, or the face veil she adopted after arriving in France. But I must refer to it because as a defender of the right of women to wear a headscarf -- I myself wore one for nine years -- I will never defend the niqab which embodies the utter negation of a woman’s identity and is at the heart of radical Islamists’ hateful views of women.

The niqab does not belong anywhere -- neither in a Muslim country nor a western one. And like the niqab, these two recent French judicial travesties veer close to negating women.

Secular democracies must not sacrifice hard-won women’s rights for a “culture” that demeans women. But those countries must not punish the very women they claim to be saving.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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