Via the Immigration Law Profs listserv, Feminist Law Prof Lauren Gilbert (St. Thomas University School of Law) shared her thoughts on the French Council of State’s decision to deny French citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds of “insufficient assimilation.” Professor Gilbert’s comments are reposted here with her permission:
Although I do not agree with the Council of State’s decision, I think it’s important to point out that, contrary to how news reports have simplified the issue, Faiza Silmi was not denied French citizenship just because she wore the niqab, an Islamic veil that covers her from head to toe, revealing only her eyes. First of all, the niqab is different from the burqa, which was worn in Afghanistan during the Taliban and has a mesh covering over the eyes. (It’s annoying how many “experts” refer to her hijab as a burqa, given all the negative connotations that go with it.) As the New York Times article I sent a couple of weeks ago indicated, the Council of State upheld the administrative decision to deny citizenship to Silmi, a Moroccan national, on the basis that she had not demonstrated”sufficient assimilation”to French values. The Council of State’s decision indicated that the denial was not just based on how she dressed but on the fact that she had adopted a”radical”version of Islam”incompatible with essential values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes.” Fadela Amara, the French minister of urban affairs, who is a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent, supported the decision. She described the niqab as a”prison and”strait-jacket.” Amara stated publicly that ”[i]t is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that promotes inequality between the sexes and is totally lacking in democracy.” According to one French government official, Silmi’s interview with social services revealed that she”lived in total submission to her male relatives”and that”the idea of challenging it has never crossed her mind.” In an interview with the New York Times, Silmi explained that she had chosen to wear the niqab upon coming to the United States rather than the traditional Moroccan djelaba, a long, flowing garment with a headscarf which she had worn in Morocco, because the djelaba was not modest enough and she did not want to”draw men’s gazes.” Another report indicated that she was unwilling to reveal her face during her citizenship interview as against her religion, and had told French officials that she knew nothing about voting, since only men should have the right to vote.
This clearly is an example of how women’s bodies have become the new battlegrounds for struggles over the proper place of religion and culture within a secular state. As Ayelet Shachar points out in scholarship, in many Western states with large immigrant communities, women are playing an important symbolic role as keepers of their culture. This has been particularly the case with regard to the Muslim community. It is not unusual for immigrants or refugees, living in Western society, to adopt a stricter set of belief systems and practices than they had practiced in their home countries, as a way to insulate members of their community from what they see as the negative effects of Westernization and assimilation, including crime, drugs and the decline of moral values. Shachar describes this tendency as”cultural reactivism”. Also, many Muslim women will tell you that they wear the veil as a form of protection, both in their country of origin and in the host society. The problem is, that these tendencies within immigrant communities are on a collision course with Western liberal values. As Sarah Song would probably point out, the French decision finding that she had not sufficiently assimilated because she had not bought into the core French value of “gender equality” masks all the inequalities of race and gender and class that still exist within many so-called liberal states. Also, what is required by Islam and by an immigrant community’s cultural values is often highly contested. The moral dilemma is that, while it may be dangerous to accommodate certain religious practices, because it may lead to increased isolation of immigrant women within these communities, not accommodating these practices may exclude many women and girls from public spaces, like schools and local government.