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  Путь : I-forum / / Sylvie Kauffmann: What’s a European Liberal to Do? 

Sylvie Kauffmann: What’s a European Liberal to Do?

Sylvie Kauffmann: What’s a European Liberal to Do? 20 апреля 2016 автор: Кауффман Сильви

On Sunday, Air France will resume regular flights to Tehran. For its female flight attendants and pilots, there is a catch: On arrival, they will be asked to wear not only the most conservative version of their uniform, a pantsuit with a knee-length jacket, but also a head scarf to cover their hair, in line with Iranian law and with other foreign airlines’ practice. The unions have protested. “This is contrary to what I stand for as a woman,” an Air France flight attendant complained in Le Figaro Madame. The company quickly gave in. Only those comfortable with the requirements will fly the Paris-Tehran route.

What is really interesting is that the issue did not arise earlier when Air France was flying to Tehran, before international sanctions forced it to stop in 2008. Yes, secularism is in France’s DNA; this is the country that passed a law in 2004 to ban all emblems of religion in public schools, including Muslim head scarves, and a second law in 2010 to ban the burqa (full veil) in public areas. But the flight attendants’ reaction shows how much attitudes toward Islam have hardened in the past 14 months, which brought three waves of attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Paris and Brussels.

The French government has declared “war” on the Islamic State, but another war is also underway — an undeclared culture war over the status of women. Its symbol is “le voile” (the veil), a generic term that has come to encompass all forms of Islamic garments used to cover women’s heads. The dividing lines are confusing liberals and feminists, intellectuals and human rights activists, left and right.

Such confusion has been evident in a broader controversy about Islamic fashion. It is not a new issue, but suddenly the fact that Western ready¬to¬wear brands like Marks & Spencer or Dolce & Gabbana are designing and promoting “modest fashion” collections for the growing Muslim market has hit a raw nerve in France. Pictures of embroidered abayas and stark burkinis — full¬cover swimming garments — flourish in the media and have incited puzzled comments, prompting the women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossignol, to declare those brands “irresponsible.” They “promote the confinement of women’s bodies,” she said. True, she said, some women favor this type of fashion. But, she added, it was also true that some black people in America had supported slavery.

Though she later regretted having used the word “Nègres” — a French equivalent of “Negroes” — her condemnation of Western¬designed Islamic fashion resonated. Agnès B, a respected designer involved in social causes, said she would never design such clothes, “which have a political and religious element.” The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, admitted that she found modest fashion “a little upsetting.” In an interview with Le Monde, the feminist author and philosopher Élisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of such brands.

Ms. Badinter, 72, has predicted trouble before. A longtime critic of radical Islam, she thinks a part of the French left, “nurtured on the cultural relativism of Claude Lévi¬Strauss” and convinced that “all traditions and religions are equal,” has “lowered its guard.” As early as the 1990s, she said, warnings from feminists from Algeria and Iran were ignored, while “in French neighborhoods, many girls started to wear the veil.”

This is a wrenching time for European liberals, when taking a stand on such issues may meet approval from the far¬right leader Marine Le Pen and anti¬immigration quarters. Sociologists and experts on religion are divided, as are French Muslim women. In a book last year, “Des voix derrière le voile” (“Voices Behind the Veil”), the journalist Faïza Zerouala drew portraits of 10 young Frenchwomen who voluntarily wear the head scarf. “Some people feel uncomfortable in the company of a veiled woman, but what makes her uncomfortable are naked women on billboards,” she said. And what feminist would argue that such ads are liberating?

Confusion also reigns in the continuing debate over the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, Germany, and the way they were analyzed by the Algerian author Kamel Daoud. In an essay published in Le Monde in January, he blamed the “sexual misery of the Arab¬Muslim world” and its view of women for the attacks. “In Allah’s world,” he wrote, “the woman is denied, refused, killed, veiled, locked up or possessed.” He wrote later, in a similar vein, in The New York Times. But while many praised his argument as brilliant, some European academics, most of them French, attacked it as Islamophobic. The quarrel still rages.

So what is a European liberal to do? France’s Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, has committed himself to fighting alongside Ms. Badinter in “an essential battle for culture and identity.” He refuses to leave this fight in the hands of the far right. His warrior tone worries many activists, who fear further antagonizing the disenfranchised suburbs. But similar doubts over traditional liberal views are being voiced in neighboring countries. In Germany, Social Democratic and Green voters are notably less open to immigration than they were six months ago, according to a poll published by the French Public Opinion Institute. Speaking in Berlin, the sociologist Paul Scheffer, a member of the Dutch Labor Party, argued that the sharp debate occurring in countries that want to stay as open as possible — Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands — proves the need to “reinvent the moral middle ground.”

If you live in France, you may be experiencing a degree of veil fatigue. Yes, the agonizing of liberal democracies over which values to safeguard first has been around far too long. Yet if moderates, both Muslim and nonMuslim, cannot solve these issues, the battle over culture and identity will be left to far-right populist movements or Islamist fanatics. If so, the terrorists will have won.

Source: The New York Times

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

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