Toulouse, Part II
02.09.2009 - 03.09.2009
We drove back to Toulouse that night, for a late (by American standards) dinner. The next couple of days, I slept late (still not having adjusted to the time difference, which is apparently more brutal in this direction). When I wasn’t sorting through photos or planning the logistics of the next leg of my journey, I was spending time with Fatiha, an old friend.
She and I had met in Montreal four years earlier, through my then-boyfriend (and the last one I would give that title—too many attached expectations). I was on my first assignment with the anti-poverty NGO (Fourth World Movement), and really wanted to make a good impression. The last thing I was looking for was a boyfriend, least of all one who would end up being a long-distance one after I left. But there he was, volunteering for our team. I had no choice but to meet him, and eventually figured he might be good company. He really set the bar for bizarre bedroom behavior—but I’ll spare my more delicate readers the details. He also happened to be involved in what can only be called a cult and had regular sessions with one of the members, an older woman who would supposedly communicate directly with Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. And subsequently “suggest” certain paths he should take…such as breaking up with me. And thank God (literally!) that he did! What a wack job.
Fortunately, Fatiha had stuck to her more conventional Muslim roots, though wasn’t really practicing. Originally from Algeria, she is the most approachable person I’ve ever met. Her easy laugh and inquisitive nature completely match her shining face, huge eyes, and wildly frizzy hair. She doesn’t like her nose and is always trying to lose weight, but I think she’s perfect just the way she is.
Sometimes, good fortune can balance out my occasional uncanny bad luck. I only found out that Fatiha was living in Toulouse after having planned to go there, anyway. She generously treated me to dinner those last two nights. The first night, I again took advantage of a couple of the regional specialties – magret de canard (with peach slices and mashed potatoes) and foie gras (with fig compote). As the French say, miam miam…
I know, I know, it’s uncomfortable for the poor geese but I, too, have my weak and uncompassionate moments (ah! the creamy deliciousness!); I can be as selfish as the next person (the rich heavenliness!). Outside of gastronomic pleasures, we wandered the streets being just as silly as we could be. At one point, we were alternating between checking out guys and making fun of québécois French and the French-Canadian “specialty” of poutine (which they pronounce “poutsine”), a sloppy mess of fries, greasy gravy, and Quebec-style cheese curds.
We also visited St. Sernin, now the largest Romanesque church in France. I ogled its mural paintings dating back nearly a millennium.
Fatiha told me about the past couple of years working in the family shop and hiking in her free time until she broke her leg. She was homebound for months; during that time, nurses visited her every day for shots and physical therapy. How much did she pay for all that? Nothing. It was all included in the French national healthcare system. For some of us here in the States, it would have been our welcome to the world of debt. Yet here they are still squabbling over the “public option” in Congress. Even some Democrats still need convincing. At this point, I have neither the energy nor the words to express my exasperation.
The last night, Fatiha treated me again, this time at a charming little restaurant in the old part of town. We chatted (in my case, flirted--incorrigible, I know!) with the European businessmen at the next table, and I ate a nice salad to make up for the previous night's gourmandise.
Fatiha drove me back to Pilar’s where we, along with Thibault and his friends, had some late-night drinks. I steered the conversation into a more serious direction, taking videos of their answers to my questions on French social issues. Things got heated when I brought up immigration and integration. Fatiha stressed the difference between herself, having spent her childhood in Algeria, then moving to France (as well as being from a liberal family), and those with North African ancestry who are born and grow up in France but have a hard time feeling like they belong. They feel rejected by those in their own country, while also being out of touch with their parents’ origins. Apparently, clinging to the radical version of Islam gives some of them the specific identity and acceptance they were craving. I was surprised, I admit, when Fatiha and Pilar expressed resentment at seeing veiled women on the street. Surely, they said, it was not their own choice; they were pressured by the men in their families.
I hesitate to guess what’s going on, even if my feminist side disagrees. Sure, freedom of religion can mean practicing privately and not making others uncomfortable. I can understand the desire to keep religion out of schools, government, and other public spaces. But just on the street? To me, this is surprising. I acknowledge that putting one’s traditional customs on display—especially those most shocking to a given mainstream culture—hinders integration. But to me, being from the US, freedom of religion always meant being able to show signs of a given religion. I feel that our much larger percentage of practicing Christians would, for the most part, probably rather come across a believer of any faith than an atheist. In general, I don’t think that Americans would get angry about a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, for example. And personally, I don’t know where to draw the line between my own ideas about human rights/feminism and the need to respect other cultures and religions. It seems the French don’t worry too much about what for me is a dilemma. Point blank: it’s not in our culture, we don’t want to see it. If you insist on it, go back to your countries. As much as I can understand this mentality, and as much as I can’t stand any immigrant group anywhere not bothering to integrate at all or form relationships outside of the given community, I still have a hard time with this. (Then again, it’s more complicated in France what with their specific colonial past and all.)
Still, if I had lived through the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s, I would probably feel the same frustration as Pilar. I heard her loud and clear: we struggled for so long for equal rights, only to be confronted with women covering up—sometimes even in burkas—in France?! I can understand that, too. But personally, I would focus less on that and more on law. I think people can live as they choose, as long as there is no abuse, no coercion, and no community living under a separate set of laws (such as Sharia—supposedly Islamic law). I remember when I was in Montreal and attended an event where some members of the Muslim community were trying to push Sharia. I could hardly believe it. As others have pointed out, if a European community in an Islamic country were to request living under a separate set of laws, it would be out of the question. They would clearly have to conform to the laws and customs of that country.*
I also asked the bunch, as I’d later ask others, about whether they thought France should still be involved in African affairs and how much the subject was covered in French media. Not too much, apparently. But everyone agreed that France should stop meddling in African affairs. Later, my friend in Toulon would point out that Africans should own up to their part in issues like corruption. Of course, there are many guilty parties and greed all around. Nevertheless, foreign governments and global financial institutions often invest in African countries while turning a blind eye to corruption, or even fostering it somehow. This is a very complex subject but my simple point is that, when people and governments consider the impact of their actions on other countries, populations of those countries would be more likely to thrive in their own countries and, therefore, not feel the need to emigrate. It comes full circle. I love the idea of diplomacy and the prospect of working for the State Department, and yet have been told by diplomats that when I think of non-US interests, I might not be cut out to work there. In my mind, what is best for others can often be best for us, whether short-term or long-term. But US administrations often have a hard time seeing things long-term.
[Later, in a bar in Paris, I would have a brief chat with a guy from Italy who told me that Italians are less racist—“less” meaning “only” towards Blacks and Arabs. (!) Whereas, the French supposedly have a problem with all immigrants (hey, at least that’s equal opportunity xenophobia!). Either way, I’m out of luck! Also according to him, the Spanish are more warm and sincere. Considering its own immigration problems, I’m not so sure Spain is free of prejudice, either. And a French diplomat informed me that, actually, the British are the most prejudiced. I can’t remember if he was referring to the government or also the people. Ach, I don’t know…all of these generalizations are wearing me out. There is tolerance and intolerance everywhere.]
- I later came across an article that addresses some of my thoughts and concerns, and provoked many differing responses:
"It is no small irony these days that those fortunate countries where women have fought, passionately and at great cost, for equal rights—Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, for instance—have become home to certain Muslim immigrants who continue to violate the rights of women, abetted frequently by both the silence of the authorities and an abashed press. Why this silence? One of the least savory consequences of a colonial past is guilt: an insidious remorse that transmutes itself into a persistent reluctance to criticize publicly those who have now themselves taken on the role of oppressor—even against those who happen to oppress, openly and without shame, within the borders of liberal nations. 'You hear people talking about the need to ‘respect’ other cultures. You want me to respect this awful behavior?' [Mona] Eltahawy says."
"Where I live most women can tell stories of being groped on public transport. There are so many flashers around that no one notices them anymore. Gang rape is a daily item in the national press. The provincial press is full of accounts of fathers having sex with their daughters. Men who won't accept a refusal from a bride of their choice are known to kidnap her. Getting a divorce is long and laborious. Some aspirants simplify the process by murder. So- called crimes of passion motivated by jealousy occur regularly. But the country where I live is not Muslim and these events are simply considered crimes and not a national and racial blemish. I live in Italy. Does that make Roman Catholicism 'a very primitive religion'?"
"I lived in Cairo for a few years and I never wore a veil. I lived alone in my own apartment and took the bus to university everyday. I stayed out late and went dancing and drinking all the time. I made many good friends, both male and female--including several women university professors. Did I have incredible problems with sexual harassment in the streets? Absolutely. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are alive and well in Cairo and I would love to see that problem addressed. However, I can't tell you how many times I have been followed/grabbed/called names here in NYC. So I'm really not sure I would say that sexual harassment is a muslim thing and it's irresponsible to say so. I'm not Muslim--I don't care to promote or defend it as a religion. All I can say is that the people there had varied and complicated relationships with religion. I met progressive muslims. I met conservative muslims. i met highly religious muslims. I met muslims who really didn't care. Muslims here and abroad are a diverse bunch of people--this article, like so many in the US media, serves to dehumanize and demonize them. There is enough hatred of muslims in this country without articles like this."
"What the author is writing about is not religion, but social structure: she is describing the role of women in a tribal/clan-based society. In the Arab world, Islam reinforces that social system, but it is not identical with that social system."
"Of course we can judge other cultures. We do it all the time and rightfully so. Would we remain silent about a culture that practiced slavery? How about one that involved human sacrifice and canabalism? It is absurd to suggest that we cannot judge another culture for its treatment of women."
"I live in Canberra, Australia, so my views are influenced by the situation in two developing countries nearby to Australia: Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Indonesia (population: 230 million) is the world's largest Muslim country. As a general rule, the problems that Judy Bachrach outlines are not major problems at all in Indonesia. Of course, women do indeed face important problems of various kinds in Indonesia, but many of the problems (not all, but many) stem from poverty and the underdevelopment of all types of institutions...in Papua New Guinea, which is nominally a strongly Christian country...violence of all kinds against women is endemic...(and other nearby Melanesian societies). Surprisingly, this matter gets almost no attention in the Australian media at all. And successive Australian ministers make fine speeches about human rights at UN meetings but are generally silent on the issue of remarkable violence against women in PNG. Fortunately, after many years of silence, the Australian aid agency AusAID has recently released a report on this issue..."
"Multiculturalism, sadly, has become an exhausted ideology that embodies the precise opposite of true universalism -- wherein all human beings, without exception, are equal under the same laws and enjoy the same rights and the same freedoms to determine their own destinies. Western countries still have their share of issues, but anyone who believes that Middle Eastern counties have remotely comparable cultural values, freedoms, and political institutions hasn't visited them. Unfortunately, women have not yet earned the status of other oppressed racial or cultural groups which, if they suffered from the same oppression, would inspire boycotts everywhere. And by the way, Western feminists -- like Western men -- are appallingly silent about this state of affairs."
"I think multiculturalism is not threat to anything but the euro-centric worldview. Many travelers from the West keep going to these places to see and prove what they have set out to... At each step the Muslims are measured on the civilisational standard that the White West has forged...Multiculturalism is not simply cultural relativism. it is a positive affirmation and recognition of a self-formed or inherited identity of individuals. It is individualism of a higher order, where humans are seen as not just creatures with material needs, but as fuller beings who live and gain the meaning of their lives from their societies. Western writers think they know what goes on in a Muslim man's mind and in a Muslim woman's heart. By narrowing them into imposed categories and viewed from prejudiced lenses such kind of spurious scholarship will never serve the cause of justice, because it is inherently unjust."
"I fully agree with the people who say Western feminists have been too silent on these issues. However, I am not one of them, but I have paid a large price. One of the reasons too few people speak up about these issues is because doing so almost certainly puts them at risk of threats, violence, ad hominem attacks, and other behaviors that make life miserable. I've noticed Judy is already having to defend herself against others in the blogosphere who are now accusing her of Islamophobia and worse for having dared to comment on the status of women and stand for basic, universal human rights."
"The article contributes little information, and certainly no analysis that your well-read audience isn’t already familiar with regarding some truly abhorrent crimes that unfortunately continue to take place in Muslim [and other] communities around the globe. It is discouraging because one would have hoped that your magazine would get into a critical part of this story, namely, what Muslims themselves are doing in these societies to deal with these horrors. Every day, non-governmental organizations, clergy, community leaders and local governments join women activists to attack these practices. Even in socially conservative countries, shelters for battered wives and girls threatened with murder are opening, law enforcement officers are being taught to take their worries seriously. Muslim and Christian clerics join medical experts in demonstrating that FGM, an ancient Africa practice, is not only harmful, but religiously unjustified. Likewise, in tribal societies where it is not thought to be a religious practice, alternative rites of passage to womanhood are replacing FGM, thanks to grassroots activism and determined NGOs. Women are in the forefront of these activities, as they are in many human rights and development issues. They are making important gains because they work discreetly within and exploit local traditions to their advantage while avoiding the charge of being manipulated by outsiders. Their stories need to be heard as well."
"...There is a deep rooted underlying mysogyny in the three Abrahamist faiths. Why are they so afraid of women's spirituality and sexuality? I would love to know."