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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Hijab and Integration

Several interesting links up on Andrew's blog Multicultural Meanderings.

There is, of course, the continuing controversy over the Quebec Charte des valeurs.  Identity politics are a nasty business and this fight is no exception.  Thus far, at least one of the casualties is the perception of women as strong and capable and able to discern their own interests and desires. Adults able to decide for themselves what they want and how they should dress.  In this article there are claims that women who choose to dress a particular way (the hijab) are "crazy" and "manipulated."  As a feminist may I say that this kind of discourse is not helpful to women anywhere as it portrays us as gullible infants easily swayed by men into doing foolish things.

May I also respectfully point out that having the government tells us what to wear isn't fundamentally any different from having our menfolk do so.  One patriarchy (the state as "Papa") is picking a fight with what they perceive is another patriarchy (migrant men) over the hearts, minds, and bodies of women.

This is, alas, a political strategy that seems to be bearing fruit if the polls in Quebec are accurate.  This argument over symbols (religious and cultural) serves no one except those who wish to make political hay.  

Quebec (and other places) are trying to judge what is inside someone's head by what he or she wears on their bodies.  It's matching insides to outsides - always a perilous undertaking fraught with error and misunderstandings.  If one thinks it is possible to see a "message" and make judgements about a woman based on what she wears, then it follows that all women everywhere can be judged that way.  So then, what does it mean, mes amis, if a woman wears a short black skirt, a tight blouse and high heels?   What "messages" is she sending?  And are we allowed to treat her differently because of how we interpret her intentions manifested through her fashion sense?

Do we really want to go there?  For that matter, weren't we there a few decades ago?

The hijab/burka has become a symbol in two levels.  In some minds it stand for a degradation of women's rights and is something that women should be liberated from for their own good.  For others it is about integration:  a sign that a woman and her family do not wish to be a part of, and don't share the same values as, the culture of arrival.  If I may be so bold, I believe this says very little about migrants and a great deal about the insecurity of the culture in Quebec and France.  The French-Canadians (and the French too) seems to have lost faith in their ability to embrace migrants and convince them that the values they find on arrival are worthy of emulation and respect.

When a few women migrants (and it is is a very few) wearing hijabs can send an entire culture into a panic, that's not a good sign, is it?  It reeks of fear.  And perhaps I was incorrect about the power of women since these women, just by being and putting on a few more clothes than the average native, are causing such a fuss and provoking such extreme emotions.  Clearly, we are dangerous creatures and who knows what we might do if we were allowed to dress ourselves without guidance.

Here is what I know as a woman and a migrant - integration almost always comes eventually but it takes time. Yes, the culture of arrival competes with the culture of origin in one's head.  It can't work any other way - a migrant does not simply drop to her knees and start genuflecting to the superiority of native culture the moment she gets off the plane.  Stepping out of one world (a world that may have been the whole world for most of that migrant's life) into another is just as scary for the migrant herself.  In some cases a very few things about the former life are held as precious, not because there is no desire to integrate, but because they are the things that keep us from losing our minds as we sense that we are losing important parts of ourselves.  The whole process of detachment and re-attachment happens differently with each individual and some land harder than others depending on where she came from and what the new culture requires.

When the receiving culture screams at us, "Not good enough!" and demands further sacrifice - integration on their schedule, not ours - it has precisely the opposite effect.  No one likes to be forced into anything or told that their culture of origin is "bad" or talked down to as if she were a small child.

Because if that is the vision we get of the native culture - abusive, intolerant, controlling, quick to judge, slow to accept - then we really have to wonder why we would ever want to be a part of such a society at all.


Sauve said...

Thanks! I will buy the book as I have always been interested in migrants and their impact on the receiving country.

Having been born in 50's in Texas and spending the 60's in Southern California I have had the opportunity to come in close contact with the Mexicans choosing to come to the states. I had very little problem with the cultural impact. Indeed I thought it was a good thing to stimulate the state's culture.

Blaze said...

This summer I saw an image I have never seen before.

On a warm sunny afternoon, there was a woman strolling down the street wearing a black hijab topped off with a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap.

Loved it. I was driving by, so I couldn't tell her.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and visit often. No one ever fusses about Amish women's clothing or prayer kapp. In fact, they are well accepted and respected as an important part of Pennsylvania culture and values. They are strongly connected to the mainstream, even though they live separate lives.

Yet many Pennsylvanians detest the hijab and insist Muslim women should take it off and integrate.

Christophe said...

The problem with the hijab is it goes against integration not so much about the clothing itself, but because it completely hides the face. It makes many 'westerners' uncomfortable to talk to someone you can only the eyes. In some cases, the eyes are also somewhat hidden by a piece of mesh.
So yes, I truly think it goes against integration.

Here's an anecdote, hijab related: coming back to the US through London this summer, there was several women wearing hijabs boarding our plane. I was surprised and somewhat upset when multiple security agents checked their passports without asking them to reveal their face. How can you be sure that it is indeed the right person? And this happened at multiple security checkpoints.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sauve, It's a very good book. Another one I really recommend is about emigration from Mexico from the POV of the mexican state. A Nation of Emigrants by David Fitzgerald.

@Blaze, I love it too. when I was in New York on an MBA trip there were quite a few North African ladies (all engineers by the way) and we all got up early one morning and went jogging together. Yes, a woman can jog quite well in a headscarf and baggy pants.

@Christophe, Ah, the burka which covers just about every part of the body except the eyes. Very rare.

Most ladies I know wear the headscarf which covers the hair but not the face. Some of the scarves I've seen are pretty classy.

In France everyone is required to remove anything that covers the head in order to be identified for security checks. That includes Catholic nuns. So that's not really the issue here.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about discomfort. It feels "wrong" in France to see a woman wearing a shapeless bag around her body.

So the question I would ask here is to what extent does male discomfort over how a woman is dressed matter here? Does discomfort trump an individual's right to do something that isn't harming anyone? Something as simple and basic as dressing how she pleases?

What's funny about this particular debate in Quebec is that other provinces seem to be taking advantage of the fuss. Lynne sent me this:

So if Quebec wants to make a fuss over headscarves, other places in Canada are more than happy to assure them that they are very welcome to come live and work there.

And THAT apparently has been a driver in calls in Quebec to exclude medical facilities from having to comply with the proposed charter. What will they do if all those doctors and nurses decide to go live in British Columbia instead? And what will they do if other immigrants from French-speaking countries decide to do the same and bypass Quebec altogether? I wouldn't blame them if they did.

Yasmin said...

I don't believe for one second it makes "Westerners" uncomfortable to talk to someone where you can only see their eyes.

How many times a day do people in Western societies talk to people over the phone where they can't even see ANYTHING?

The head covering (hijab) and face covering (niqab or burqa) make "Westerners" uncomfortable because they have been told for years that only oppressed women dress this way. So "Westerners" feel uncomfortable when a woman only shows her eyes because she becomes a symbol for oppression.

Sadly, oppression itself doesn't seem to bother many "Westerners". I worked for nine months with survivors of domestic violence and most of the people I knew who had never been in that situation or never had a loved one in that situation were more than happy to ignore what was going on with them. That's the sad truth.

If "Westerners" really cared that women are oppressed, they would open more shelters. They would treat women who look oppressed with compassion. They would reach out to their fellow human beings with support and understanding. They wouldn't be patronising or condescending, and they certainly wouldn't use the dress/cultural issues of the OTHER to say "hey look at how awesome we are, we are such the human rights country".

Victoria is right - we humans are very dangerous.

Christophe said...

@Victoria. Oops. Sorry. I had my names messed up. I don't have anything against the head covering (hijab). That's the entire face covering (niqab or burqa) that I think goes against integration and make most people uncomfortable. Sorry about that.

Christophe said...

So the question I would ask here is to what extent does male discomfort over how a woman is dressed matter here?

Why just men? I think women who didn't grow up in Europe find these type of dressing 'different' as well. Again, the scarf is not as bad, but how could we accept the total covering of the face in our societies. This is demeaning.
I think people see this as some type of line not to cross. This is some form of discrimination. Now, the women wearing these might not see it this way, because they grew up like, but it is in a society like ours. I think what people might be afraid of is if you let such discrimination happen here, what would prevent, if you give immigrants the right of vote to pass laws that are normal in their countries like preventing women to drive for example?
All these controversies are not just about integration, they're also about locals not liking to see their cultures/coutumes change.
That is what might happen when you have too many of a different culure immigrate to the same place. It's not noticeable when immigrants have the same culture. But when it is so different, and people notice, that's when the locals try to enact those laws to try to preserve the local cultures.

In a couple months, my son's school is organizing a day of culture exchange, where people from different cultures can have a booth showing different aspects of their family cultures. I had thought of participating, but I am not sure. I don't know how most other local families would react to that. Even though the US is the land of immigration, you can see some racism in some parts of the country where a big population of Mexican immigrants or Asian immigrants are growing. Bottom line, I don't want to make the locals uncomfortable with an event like that. I am still unsure about participating... It's not that I am ashamed about my culture. (Even though people still talk about liberty fries sometimes. That stuck). But I'd rather blend :-)

Have a good weekend!

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughtful post and some good reminders why the French and Quebec approach ironically is reinforcing some of the values that they are against.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Yasmin, Thank you for your comment and your observation about the phone. I also saw that you linked to this article from your blog. Much appreciated and I will go back and read your work.

I think feminists are deeply divided over this issue. Where I come from is as both a feminist and a conservative Christian. I don't believe these are irreconcilable things. If the larger culture wishes to tell me ad infinitum that I am deluded that is their right (though I do wish they would be a little less strident about it).

Liberty of religious expression is a fundamental right under liberal democratic states. What the cross around my neck or the scarf covering a neighbor's head means exactly to me or to her is not the state's business. Banning such things (to me anyway) is an affront to a basic liberty - a fundamental human right. When a state does such a thing "for my own good and the good of women everywhere" well, that just about causes me to blow my stack. :-)

@Christophe, Here's a book for you. I don't agree with all of it but it's very thoughtful. Veil by Christian Joppke. He points out that the hijab has been "managed" very differently in different countries. He compares France, the US and Germany and says, "every country has the headscarf controversy it deserves."

I hear what you are saying about fitting in. But I would counter by saying that the process of integration is not a "the natives say and the immigrants do." It's a negotiation. I would even go so far as to say that all of us migrants have something that we hold onto in the face of this majority culture that is so overwhelming in the beginning (or even sometimes into the second generation). We do this even if the majority frowns on it. All the more so if it is something so deeply held, so much a part of us that giving it up would rip out a piece of our hearts. In all honestly, most of us compromise and keep these things to ourselves in our private lives. The issue of sexual harassment, for example, in France is a subject I have learned to avoid. I have opinions about it informed by my culture that 20 years here haven't changed. But giving my view does indeed make the people around me uncomfortable and so I say nothing. Does this mean I haven't properly integrated yet? :-)

Julia Gandrud (aka JuliaLikesFrogs) said...

Amen, Victoria!