Making sure fraternite is not just for the boys

June 4, 2004

When is a beard 'Islamic' or 'Hassidic'? Ruth Morse navigates a course through France's choppy cultural waters.

Photographs of the veiled victims of French authoritarian school regulations have tended to present doe-eyed girls weeping over their sincere religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the issues are more complex - and faster moving - than such snapshots convey. Any similarities to the issue of motorcycle helmets for Sikh men, say, rapidly break down in the face of different histories, French and Islamic.

France is still an intensely Catholic country, but the main thrust of socialisation assumes and depends on schools that teach the treasured "republican" civic values of secularity and tolerance. Part of France's long history of public education has been to insist that the public services be neutral spaces, where no one may display open, insistent or ostentatious religious signs. No advertising, no publicity, no attempts to proselytise. What has changed is not only the diversity of religions, but also the styles in which they are expressed.

As in that other text-based culture, the US, French institutions look back at foundations: liberté, egalité, fraternité . As Americans discovered, separate was never equal. A glance at the former boys' and girls' entrances to school buildings reminds us how recently classes were divided by gender.

Normal has been normal only long enough to forget that it was not always so. Fraternité itself is often now replaced by parité . The education of girls is for more than the motherhood of future citizens, however clear it is that many families, and not only immigrant ones, still concentrate their resources on sons, whose subject orientation is responsibly economic, while daughters, if they are allowed to continue their education, can study anything.

Parité makes sense only if one remembers fraternité . Current laws that reiterate the fundamental secular mission (another etymological irony) of primary and secondary education cannot, in the end, legislate social attitudes. They cope badly, as does abortion law, with medical and human complexity. When is a beard "Islamic" or "Hassidic"?

Yet lines must be drawn, and drawn better. There are definitions of many kinds to acknowledge, not least civil liberties. But the clear and present danger is to girls, who face many kinds of social pressure: the thin end of the wedge that begins with a veil quickly becomes gender-isolated physical education, then classes, then religiously distinct schools and purdahs of other kinds.

Furthermore, against state insistence on assimilation, veils are taken as heroic signs of protest. They dramatise the old paradox of conformist resistance, all the more seductive where girls have little outlet for heroism. There are more veils to be seen on the street now than before the recent, clumsy legislation. None of this addressed the asymmetrical, evident Catholic ambience by a parité that suppressed any part of it.

Meanwhile, French universities treat students as autonomous adults, responsible for their own failures and capable of making their own decisions. In my university, one sees few veils, beards or yarmulkes. In my department, most students are women, and many are children of immigrants.

Their anxieties about the future are patent: they know about prejudice in the world of work, and worry that there will be no place for them. It is hard to persuade them that things change, especially in view of the government's recent swingeing cuts in public education, which is its engine for socialisation.

Social memory is not the same as society's ever-urgent need for accurate history - not just the evolution of the veil and who wore it, at what age and under what circumstances, but other overt displays of identity. Perhaps the establishment of compulsory free public education ought to be one of the lieux de mémoire celebrated elsewhere. In a classroom, such discussions are not only welcome, they are also an important way of encouraging students to think clearly and debate courteously, men and women together, in the same room, treated as equals, in as neutral and as secular a space as we can help them learn to create.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universites at Université Paris VII.

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