When I first came to Belgium, one of the things that genuinely surprised me is how people seem to think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is a children’s programme. Admittedly, the title doesn’t exactly say “socially relevant drama”, but I doubt that the show’s success on American TV would have been possible without the age 24-55 market. Eventually, I started asking people what it was about the programme that made them come to that conclusion.
In most cases, people never really got past the name. Fantasy on the continent seems to be a very different animal than in the US. For example, when I suggested that Buffy is no more fantasy than Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, I was greeted with shock. No, no – I was told – Am?lie is magical. The Paris it is set in – the clean one, without the graffitti and street crime – is fictional, of course, and the plot is certainly not realist, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same category as vampires.
In a lot of cases, the real problem was linguistic. Buffy in French sounds very childish, spouting verlan and action movie clichés. The wit and prose skill of the original writers is completely lost, and even if you watch it in English on Flemish TV or the Beeb, I guess non-native speakers just don’t get it.
But I had one answer that surprised me. One person thought it belonged in the same category of American TV as Beverly Hills 90210. Why? Because of the clothes Buffy wears. No school would ever let a girl dress like that to class. I had to explain that in California, Buffy’s clothes aren’t even close to excessive.
The Belgian school system places some demands on students that American schools don’t. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with the imposition of a reasonable dress code in school. It is, if anything, one of life’s most minor injustices. Besides, I remember what it felt like to wear clothes from K-mart at a school where designer jeans were de rigueur.
However, I have some problems with this:
BRUXELLES Deux s?nateurs de la majorit?, Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) et Alain Destexhe (MR), ont d?pos? une proposition de r?solution qui invite les autorit?s f?d?rales et f?d?r?es du pays ? adopter des textes l?gislatifs portant sur l’interdiction ? l’?cole, et pour les agents de la fonction publique, de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse.
Anne-Marie Lizin esp?re que le bureau du S?nat mettra sur pied une commission ad hoc qui pourra se pencher sur cette question d?licate, avec comme fil rouge le texte de la proposition de r?solution.
Pour Alain Destexhe, qui s’appuie sur la position de la Communaut? fran?aise, sur l’avis du Centre pour l’?galit? des chances, sur les diff?rentes d?clarations politiques et sur divers arr?ts, rapports ou recommandations tant belges qu’?trangers, le d?bat est clos, il est temps d’agir. Pour le s?nateur MR, il faut se demander ce qu’implique de vivre ensemble en Belgique au 21?me si?cle.
Il s’agit de d?fendre la libert? de conscience et la compatibilit? des libert?s dans l’espace public, ce qui implique un certain nombre de r?serves au sein de l’administration et ? l’?cole. L’?cole doit ?tre le lieu de l’apprentissage d’une conscience critique et de la promotion de valeurs universelles, ajoute-t-il.
Pour Anne-Marie Lizin, ?le voile, c’est la pression sur l’individu au nom d’une religion ?. La s?natrice de Huy estime qu’il est urgent de l?gif?rer au nom de l’?galit? homme-femme et pour soutenir le combat des femmes musulmanes dans chaque pays o? elles disent ?non? ? l’inf?riorit?.
L’initiative des deux parlementaires se fait en toute autonomie. Tant au PS qu’au MR, on ne se prononce pas pour l’interdiction du port du voile ? l’?cole. Le pr?sident du PS Elio Di Rupo a m?me estim? qu’il n’?tait pas opportun de d?battre de cette question en p?riode pr??lectorale. Mais pour Alain Destexhe, ?ne pas en discuter en p?riode ?lectorale revient justement ? alimenter le poujadisme et le vote d’extr?me droite?.
(Read on for the English translation)
Two senators want to forbid headscarves at school
BRUSSELS Two senators from the majority coallition, Anne-Marie Lizin (Socialist) and Alain Destexhe (Reform Movement), have submitted a proposed resolution that asks the federal authorities to adopt legislation forbidding insignia that demonstrate relgious allegiances, both in schools and in the civil service.
Anne-Marie Lizin hopes that the Senate will set up an ad hoc commission to debate this delicate question on the basis of the proposed resolution.
For Alain Destexhe, the debate is closed and the time to act is now, as per the position of [Belgian] French Community [Government], the opinion of the Centre for Equal Opportunity,and various Belgian and foreign political declarations, excutive orders, reports and recommendations. For the Reformist senator, we need to ask ourselves what it means to live together in Belgium in the 21st century.
It is a question of the defense of the freedom of conscience and the compatibility of different freedoms in the public domain – a view which has produced some reservations in the government and in schools. School must be a place where a critical spirit is instilled as well as where universal values are promoted, the senator adds.
For Anne-Marie Lizin, “headscarves are a form of pressure placed on individuals in the name of religion.” The senator from Huy believes that we must urgently pass legislation in support of the equality of the sexes and to assist Muslim women in every country where they refuse inferiority.
The two parliamentarians are acting alone. The Socialists and the Reform Movement alike have not released any statements on the headscarf issue. The Socialist Party president, Elio Di Rupo, has claimed that it is an inopportune moment to debate this question, considering the upcoming elections. But, according to Alain Destexhe, “not discussing it before the election will only help the brown-shirts and the far right.”
The governments of Europe have, for the most part, caught on to the idea that the government has no place in the people’s bedrooms. It seems, however, that they still think they have a place in the people’s wardrobes. Just what is it about the headscarf that makes people like Jacques Chirac want to join the fashion police? There are fashions that annoy the hell out of me, but by what possible logic are headscarves more offensive than, say, big hair? Is there any way in which headscarves are more oppressive to women than mini-skirts?
What is it about headscarves that makes European politicians insane? I doubt that Al Qaeda could do more to unhinge the French government than this issue has. Is it, perhaps, a secret weapon designed to turn western governments into gibbering idiots that monitor women’s fashions?
This debate is fairly new in Belgium. It is far more advanced in France. There, not only do they intend to abolish headscarves, but also yarmulkes and visible crosses. Perhaps I missed the memo, but when exactly did it become cool to prove you aren’t really anti-Muslim by targeting orthodox Jews at the same time? As for people who wear crosses, if these sorts of laws are passsed, I will bet that the number of Christians prosecuted in France will be well within what I can count on one hand.
In Belgium, this sort of proposal is even more hypocritical. At the university I attended, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, there was a cross hanging in every classroom. Will the Belgian state be passing legislation requiring their removal as well as the elimination of the word “Catholic” from the names of the country’s two largest and most elite universities? Many Belgians study in the state supported Catholic school system, which is widely believed to offer superior education. Will all the Catholic schools become state schools? Will they be getting rid of catechism classes?
If you think the answer is like hell they will, you’re almost certainly right. Belgium suffered through painful debates about religion and education in the 50’s and 60’s, and reopening those questions by banning the appearance of religious allegiance is probably not going to happen here. In France, however, I can’t be sure.
I know I can’t be the only person who finds this whole argument over the defence of secularism and universal values to be a complete crock of shit. Is it even marginally plausible that Chirac, Raffarin and the RPR-UDP are really worried about defending secularism and women’s rights? French unemployment is hovering around 10%, and the biggest issue facing the government is what girls wear to school? Really, even George W. Bush knows better than to mess with freedom of religion issues.
I really don’t see how anyone can think either that all the girls who wear headscarves are oppressed or that the ones that are will be less oppressed by the interdiction. How, exactly, are mesures that will keep the most oppressed Muslim girls out of school altogether supposed to help liberate them? Belgian schools are notoriously lax in enforcing truancy laws, so there is no chance that the state is going to go and round up girls who won’t go to school if they can’t wear headscarves. And the spectre of French police running around dragging girls out of their homes and tearing off their headgear in the streets – even Chirac isn’t going to go there.
Had the French right proposed to teach girls in the public schools about their social and political rights, were they planning to build shelters for mistreated Muslim women, had they proposed spending money on TV campaigns directed at religious minorities to reinforce women’s rights – then I might have believed that the French government really cared about the equality of women in Islamic communities. But for now, this is about an unpopular government with unpopular policies pandering to the lowest elements of society in order to distract people.
It is my hope that these kinds of laws will never be passed, and that if they are passed, that national courts will strike them down. Failing that, I hope the European Court of Human Rights will do its duty. But in the meantime, I hope that French students will take matters in their own hands. This sort of hypocritical nonsense is just begging for some civil disobedience. I suggest that French students make headscarves, yarmulkes and big crosses the fashion accessories for 2004. Make sure that no kid is cool if they don’t wear something religious. Use that teenage hatred of authority to actually accomplish something.
If you want to convince Muslim women to adopt French values about the place of women, taking away the distinctiveness of the headscarf by having everyone wear one is a far, far better way to go about it.
The thing that bothers me most, however, is the direction this debate about “what it means to be French” (or Belgian, or European, or whatever) is taking. This kind of discussion almost never happens in Canada, where we have far more of these kinds of issues. Some years ago, there was a similar sort of fuss in the old country about Sikh turbans. There are two incidents from that era that come to mind. In the first, a Sikh student was prevented from taking a chemistry class because the safety rules forbade flammable headgear. Instead of kicking the kid out of school and forcing Sikh boys to take off their turbans, the school procured flame-resistant materials so that the student could safely do his chemistry labs.
But, the second incident is more revealing. Sikhs have a strong tradition of employment in the police and armed services, and it didn’t take too long after Sikhs started arriving in Canada in large numbers before one enrolled in the RCMP academy – the training school for Canada’s federal police. The RCMP have a very specific and moderately famous dress code – a code that specifies what kind of headwear Mounties can have. Rather than block SIkhs from becoming Mounties, the RCMP preemptively changed its dress code. Their solution was ingenious. Rather than creating an exception for Sikh Mounties, they added to the dress code a specification for an official RCMP turban, made of blue cloth held together with a maple leaf pin. This was an important statement. It said that being Sikh is not only compatible with being Canadian, but that there are and should be institutions distinctive to Canadian Sikhs. It proposed that there is a Canadian way to be Sikh.
That is what is missing in European debates about Islamic communities. The idea that there is some conception of Frenchness, Belgianness or even Europeanness to which immigrants must comply is an idea that deserves to be consigned to oblivion. Instead, governments ought to advance the idea that just as Arab Christians are still Arabs, and that Christians in the Middle East have distinctive institutions that are different from those found in Europe, European Muslims need to have distinctive institutions of their own too. Institutions which are at once Islamic and European, which are not necessarily shared by their non-Islamic neighbours but which aren’t shared by their extra-European brethren either, will do far more to advance the cause of a common identity than social integration at gunpoint ever will.