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.