Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oh, Don't Mind Them

There has been quite a bit of debate (if you chose to call it that) stirred up by the proposed French ban on women wearing the burqa. Commentators on both sides of the issue have also been using it as cover to take pot shots at those they disagree with.

Debates like this usually tend to drift somewhat, and this one is no exception. Perhaps predictably, an element of social enlightenment or cultural superiority tends to creep in when no-one is looking. Consider the following closing statement from Wajahat Ali, writing on Slate: "But France is behaving like the Saudi Arabia of the EU by forcibly removing Muslim women's rights with a legislative guillotine."

I'd say that "the implication is clear," but Ali pretty much comes flat out an says it - you would expect this sort of thing from Saudi Arabia - but France should be above such considerations. Leaving aside for the time being the simple idea that there is something in France that feels threatened by the stereotype of Islam that the burqa represents (in much the same way that there is something in the Islamist worldview that feels threatened by a stereotype of France), why should France be any better than any other nation on Earth when it comes to the idea of: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do?" The world is full of cultural norms and taboos that have been given the force of law. And dress codes are the norm throughout the world, rather than the exception. Granted, in the United States for instance, it is merely culturally inappropriate, rather than illegal, to wear a string bikini to the office. But even a floor-length dress with full sleeves won't prevent the police from being called if nipples are exposed. Sure, if you ask the average American, they might tell you that a woman showing her breasts in public is inappropriate (we seem to have mislaid the word "immodest" some time back), but despite that, that opinion is by no means universal. (The efforts of Christian missionaries notwithstanding.)

Just about every culture on Earth has, to one degree or another, a finely developed sense of insult and rejection when it comes to outsiders who don't conform - some of them codify these things into law, and others don't. Foreign women visiting many Islamic nations are expected to at least wear a headscarf, if nothing else, but there can be severe consequences for non-compliance. Even high-level diplomats like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to dress in accordance with local norms. On the hand, however, were the Japanese to institute a policy that everyone wear a kimono at all times, that would be considered beyond strange.

The French seem to be losing patience with the idea of a minority population that wants to live physically in France, and culturally somewhere else - and is quite vocal about the shortcomings of the locals. And to the degree that such a stand is at odds with their stated values, it's worth criticizing. But it's also worth being careful that we don't write off the places that never showed such patience in the first place, as "just being like that." While "the soft bigotry of low expectations" may be a cliché, it's no less real for that.

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