måndag, september 20, 2004

Periwinkles, ticket-Tinas, hostages, and the hijab

Recently, Le Monde reported that Nora B., a 'periwinkle' (French for 'meter maid') was suspended because "she showed up at work, on August 25, with a thin hairnet holding her hair and hiding her ears, beneath her cap. [...] She explained that she followed a religious obligation".

I had a talk on the phone with Karin Hebel, of the Stockholm City Real Estate & Traffic Administration, and asked her if a lapplisa ('ticket-Tina') would be allowed such a garment. She answered that they hadn't an official policy as the case hadn't arised, but that they had had theoretical discussions and as long as the cap was clearly visible, with the veil beneath, it would be ok to wear one.

Very pragmatic, as expected, though showing up at school in a chador is beyond the pale.

Why no such pragmatism in France? Because 'the Veil' threatens 'la laïcité', considered one of most important heritages of the 1789 Revolution. There has also been concern on how peer pressure in Muslim areas forces girls to wear the hijab to avoid been regarded as 'dishonourable' (or more crudely 'whores'), and is seen by many primarily as a women's issue. Others argue that the real feminist thing is to let every woman decide for herself; and last but not least, there is the question of whether this discriminates France's largest minority. Such a mix of issues, each in and by itself very sensitive, led to anxiety about a 'hot September' when school was due to resume.

The kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq changed all that. Muslim organisations, both in France and abroad, compactly denounced the kidnappers' demand that the ban be abolished, instead bringing unity to the country. The terrorists, seeing how this was badly backfiring on them, handed over the hostages to another group, raising hopes that their release will be imminent.

So, all's well that ends well? For the moment, at least. That doesn't make the ban against 'conspicuous religious symbols' a good idea. It's very controversiality made it a highly dubious proposition, and it's only by a fortuitous turn of events that France has avoided a tearing national debate, and that may have been only postponed. Its practical application can also lead to delicate predicaments: what if one of Nora B's non-Muslim colleagues wore the same hairnet as a fashion accessory? Whatever the rights or wrongs of the ban in principle, in the real world it's likelier to create more problems than it solves.