I don’t suppose anybody’s watching ARTE tonight?

ARTE – a sort of Franco-German cooperative education channel – has been talking about the headscarf debate tonight. It’s a bit weird to watch. First, they showed a documentary about a school in Germany with a large Muslim community. Clearly, it was a relatively poor neighbourhood. The bulk of the documentary seemed dedicated to listening to teachers complain about the extra-workload all these students involve – language problems, parents forbidding their daughters to take swimming lesson, or requiring them to wear swimsuits that aren’t quite the same as the others. For a big chunk of it, we saw the teachers trying to organise a school trip to Berlin when the parents didn’t understand that the boys and girls would be staying entirely apart and would be chaperoned at all times or that they could request that the fee be waived if they were poor.

The teachers seemed to be mostly annoyed that the parents weren’t behaving the way they expected. Frankly, it looked to me like a normal day in the Montreal school system. I wasn’t really impressed by the complaining.

Then, they interviewed an imam of a fairly conservative mosque who pronounced on this and that for them, and pointed out that they could be more Muslim in Germany than in Turkey. But the parents they talked to seemed a lot less motivated by religion than a simple Archie-Bunkeresque sort of traditionalism. In one case, the father of a girl who wasn’t allowed to go on this field trip explained that he was a mostly secular second generation Turkish German and that it was the mother – a recent immigrant from Turkey – who insisted on this relative conservativism.

But, it was the second documentary that was surprising. It involved a French woman – herself Muslim – going into the projects where she grew up to talk to people there. She talked to a group of teenage girls, and then later to a very pretty aspiring dancer – of the hip-hop variety, not ballet – who was also Muslim. It was very strange to see the headscarf debate set out from the perspective of high school girls. Not one of the girls she talked to said that their parents made them wear a headscarf. If this documentary accurately portrays the attitudes in the cités, religion and old country attitudes have nothing at all to do with this issue. It is more about peer pressure and avoiding harrassment from boys. The interviewer also talked to a second generation French Arab woman – no headscarf, wearing jeans, smoking a cigarette – complaining about how kids these days have gone all religious.

The strangest part of it all is that it seems that these kids are, in fact, not drinking, not partying and not having sex. That’s very bizarre. There is little point in being French if you can’t drink or get laid. No wonder this all weirds people out so much.

In America, there is a bit of noise about these teenage “purity oaths” – promises to stay off of booze and drugs and keep your virginity for marriage. It was around when I was a kid, and if you read the looney right in the US, you’d think it had grown into a real movement. It hasn’t. People are still having sex, and the statistics strongly suggest that promising to “keep yourself pure” until marriage leads to more binge drinking and teenage pregnancy than the alternative. Just what is going on in France if kids are complaining to their parents that they are too hedonistic?

The debate afterwards brought up an interesting point, one that I simply hadn’t considered. Is it possible that this whole business has more to do with identity politics than religion? Second and third generation French Muslims are overwhelmingly unemployed and trapped in the projects. Lacking a solid connection to some other social identity, is it possible that they have adopted Islam primarily for its value as a label? When I was a teenager in the States, people started saying the same sorts of things about black kids – how listening to rap music and wearing baggy pants was just reinforcing their separation from mainstream society and how black kids were rejecting “white” values. This sort of noise still pops up now and then. Things work differently in the US, in large part because what the black kids do today, the white kids inevitably do tomorrow, frustrating any effort to create an identity through fashion. Obviously, that is not the case in France.

This line of thought leaves me even more convinced that the problem can’t be addressed by a ban. Indeed, if this is really about identity poltics the worst possible thing to do is try to enforce a ban. It will only reinforce the symbol’s value as a mark of difference.

5 thoughts on “I don’t suppose anybody’s watching ARTE tonight?

  1. It is more about peer pressure and avoiding harrassment from boys.

    The headscarf as harrassment protection reminds of a story related by economist Thomas Frank (I think…)

    Of Professional Hockey players who each would rather play without helmets, but nonetheless all supported the NHL’s helmet rule.

    The reason being that wearing the helmet reduced their field of vision, thus not wearing the helmet would have given them a comparative advantage against other players, and thus worthwhile in spite of the greater risk of injury.

    The kicker is if all of them felt that way, none would have a comparative advantage but all would have a greater risk of injury.

    The ban on not wearing helmets leveled the field, but with lesser risk of injury.

    Now, for Franco-muslim girls, wearing the headscarf makes them less likely to be harrassed…putting the more secular at a comparative disadvantage unless they too adopt the headscarf…irrespective of their own beliefs.

    Question is, which will cause less injury: A ban on the Headscarves or having all Franco-Muslim girls ‘choose’ to wear scarves ?

  2. >There is little point in being French if you
    >can’t drink or get laid.


    this may well become my favorite quote of the year ;), however, having lived in Paris for some time I do happen to know young French Christians who don’t drink much and who vowed not to have sex before marriage (well, that’s what they say…).

  3. Tobias – I suppose I should have accompanied the remark with a smiley, since I lived in France too when I was young and horny and found things were not entirely as advertised either.

  4. It’s occurred to me that the headscarf thing (and int?grisme in general) may be little more than a way for second- and third-generation immigrants to annoy their parents.

    I suppose we’ll know in about a decade whether this is the case; that’s about when the current crop of young fundamentalists will have adolescent children of their own.

  5. If this documentary accurately portrays the attitudes in the cit?s, religion and old country attitudes have nothing at all to do with this issue. It is more about peer pressure and avoiding harrassment from boys.

    I read an article in the Guardian last year about the sexual politics of the banlieue. Arab girls who have sex with their boyfriends or just wear figure-hugging clothes are getting raped as punishment for supposedly being putes (sluts). Women must be chaste and dress modestly, but of course it’s perfectly fine for men to have sex with girls deemed to be putes and, moreover, all white French girls are putes anyway…

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