Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On Head Scarves

Here in France, the question of what a woman wears on her head (and sometimes I wonder if soon the facial hair worn by a man might not come under the same scrutiny) is no longer left up to the individual. I can't say whether a woman should or should not wear one, knowing that either way she is often not at liberty to decide. While on the one hand the govt. here forbids it in specific circumstances, there are others where she is obliged to wear her scarf by a male in her family. Should a woman not have the right to decide for herself?

The question is all the more puzzling when one takes into consideration the fact that many women now wear the hijaab out of choice. I have to say that for my part, I find the idea of not having to spend any time worrying about how my hair looks is very appealing. I often yearn to live in a society that didn't judge me on my looks - oh, but to wear a large black wrap that covered me head to foot while wearing pajamas underneath! Only that isn't at all what we're talking about, is it?

But more than cultural protest - or even a defiant expression of faith - the wearing of the scarf can be the manifestation of total male dominance, or - and this is the aspect I find intriguing - a means of defining oneself, a desperate way to assert one's identity.

Right now, I'm reading "SNOW" by the Nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. the central "story" question of which revolves around head-scarf wearing girls who commit suicide, why they kill themselves: is it because they are forbidden to wear it in post Ataturk Turkey? Or do the other conditions in their lives provoke the desperate act? (I'm still reading, will I know when I reach the end?)

The thing is, I was told an anecdote recently about a young girl here, whose parents were staunchly secular in their way of life, who began wearing the hijaab of her own accord when she was about 14. In doing so she has brought a measure of ostracism upon herself, and is being treated for severe back-pain for which there is no evident cause. (I'm taking this - as her doctor does - as an expression of her inner suffering made physical.)

Discussing this with the doctor involved who suggested to her parents that to relieve the pain - as far as he was concerned, since it was to him a psychological problem - the best recourse was to take her to a therapist. But I'm not sure it can be "cured" so simply. In the current context, I wonder if the socio/cultural climate here is not what would need to be fixed instead.

At her age, the question of identity - not just who she is, but what group does she belong to - is the central question of her life. The doctor is convinced that by her choice of head wear, she is condemning herself to ostracism. But I wonder if such ostracism was not already in place. I am all too aware of the climate here, the attitude of the non-Muslim French towards those they consider to be immigrants, though they may have been here for several generations. The evidence of how the French ostracize their fellow citizens on the basis of their ethnic origins is everywhere. How can a young woman develop a modicum of self-respect except by distancing herself from those who would deem her unworthy of their respect - regardless of the scarf she wears. And what other choice does she have but assert her otherness in a way that allows her to become a part of something larger than herself, a group in which she can be included, and even be respected for wearing the scarf?

I imagine that as long as the portion of the French population who trace their origins to the Maghreb continue to be discriminated against, the wearing of the hijaab will be on the rise. From where I sit, it is a symbol of hope. The efforts to assimilate here have produced none of the intended - and much touted - effects. Rather than try to impose by rule of law that the scarf not be worn, maybe it's time to invest in trying to change the mindsets of those who continue to refuse them access to the very closed society that is mainstream France.

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