The Veil of Secularism

There’s a tendency among white feminists to attack religious practice on the basis that they know better than the practitioners themselves. I watched a Simone de Beauvoir documentary and was interested in the three women they had on to contribute. I was dismayed to learn that, for the most part, they’re pretty far from Beauvoir’s radical spirit. One, Leila Slimani, comes from a family of financiers and represents Macron himself on the International Organisation of La Francophonie, a body representing countries where French is the lingua franca (usually because a country was a French colony). Another, Titiou Lecoq, is a freelance writer who writes columns for Slate Magazine (slate.fr) and actually seems like an interesting writer who’s written books and essays on the subject. She recently wrote a book about Balzac, which would certainly interest me. The third person is the real reason for my disappointment.

Elisabeth Badinter signed a letter in 1989 which demanded that the Minister of Education not let Muslim students go to school if they didn’t take off their veils. This seems to me like an example of the French devotion to secularism at the expense of individual liberty. It’s a position that, on the one hand, criticises religions (usually Islam) for deriving their moral authority from divinely inspired texts to the detriment of individual rights while, on the other, positioning itself as a moral authority with the right to infringe on individual rights in the name of their greater freedom. I don’t doubt Badinter and her co-signatories’ good intentions in their opposition to religious dogma but I think the coercive approach they adopt is morally reprehensible, to be frank. It’s tantamount to withdrawing the right to vote from convicts in America. Certain rights are inalienable and I would include franchise and education in that group. Giving Muslim girls the option of either defying their religious convictions or being deprived of their right to education is an atrocious non-choice.

I’m an atheist myself and I think that religious dogma enforced by hierarchy is often coercive. Even so, I think it’s a demonstration of the utmost arrogance to assume that any Muslim girl wearing a veil to school needs to be saved from superstition by white liberal feminists.

I have some first-hand experience with the subject of religion in a French classroom setting. I was in a class at Strasbourg university where a man got up in front of the room and began to speak about how feminism is against the spirit of love. Since the class was made up mostly of women, at least one of whom was Muslim, I tuned out pretty quick. This was a French oral class and I’d spent plenty of time having discussions with my classmates, including debates, and I knew I didn’t need to get involved or speak for them. Somehow, this guy got onto the subject of Islam and a Muslim friend of mine spoke about how, despite being members of a religion, Muslim women are still individuals. The idea that every Muslim woman fits the stereotype of the silent victim is patently ridiculous. This particular woman didn’t wear a veil and she also drank alcohol and I have no reason to doubt her faith despite her not adhering to what westerners might associate with a Muslim aesthetic. The discussion was allowed to proceed unhindered, with the speaker facing unanimous opposition. The sort of secularism championed by Badinter would ban discussion of religion under any circumstances, meaning that exchange between my friend and the speaker would not have happened.

In the end, the teacher, a Frenchwoman of about Badinter’s age, cut the conversation off when the man made some comment about Muslim women wearing “bags” (his words) in the Middle East. She said “it’s not that kind of class” and told the man to sit down. I think this situation provided me with a model for secularism. Religion should not be used as a weapon. Religious dogma should not be used to limit people’s freedom and attacks against groups of people should not be employed under the cover of criticising their beliefs. Secularism should facilitate freedom of expression and debate, not stifle it. I think that people both with and without religious faith often think secularism is the absence of religion, when really it should foster dialogue between religions and and between the religious and non-religious alike. I was impressed by how the teacher handled that situation and I think she struck a good balance between allowing discussion and preventing insult.

I haven’t read Beauvoir’s works yet. I have a lot of books to read and I’d like to have most of my French books read before I buy any more. I’d like to think, though, that a leftist like Beauvoir would not approve of one of her admirers appealing to the patriarchal French state to prevent girls from going to school for such a minor crime.

Note: I just learned that the YouTube channel I watched the documentary on is a French government channel called Public Sénat. The Sénat is literal; it’s the official YouTube channel of the French senate. Given this, it’s surprising that they presented any radical dimension to Beauvoir’s thought. That’s also likely why two of the contributors were directly involved in French politics at both the national and international level. Badinter, to her credit, comes from a family of socialists on her mother’s side. Her grandfather advocated for the Paris Commune and took part in its governance. He was sentenced to death in absentia after fleeing France, returning only after an amnesty. He was influenced by Proudhon (I’ll get to him!), the first person to call himself an anarchist.

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