Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Paris, Je T'Aime (mostly)

Currently in the middle of what has been dubbed as Chicago's "Snowpocalypse," classes are cancelled and I have twelve hours of freedom and spontaneous play ahead of me. I sit here writing to you with a mug of hot chocolate in hand and a heart full of nostalgia.

It's been two months since my Parisian adventures and I realize I have yet to reflect on what was easily my favorite semester of my undergraduate career. Oddly enough, it feels like a distant memory, as elusive as a dream and I'm only reminded of it when others ask.

I'm glad I kept up my blogging while abroad because now most details, good and bad, have turned into a fuzzy haze of novelty and excitement, glittering lights and macaroons. I've captured some interesting moments on this blog but I'll take a minute to address my biggest FAQ. It is complex and brings out some others sides of the French psyche.

Q: Did I ever feel uncomfortable wearing my hijab?

A: I've realized that there is something so innately contradictory in the French identity as it has become the center of European multiculturalism. They claim to be one entity with no legal acknowledgement of any other ethnicity. You are French and only French. And yet racism persists. It cuts through the social classes like a sharp blade leaving the (unrecognized) ethnic minorities struggling to climb the socio-economic ladder, generation after generation. They hold the lowest jobs, live in the poorest housing, and have no political voice.

Two friends I made each told me on separate occasions that they only feel French outside of France. They have known no other land and speak no other language and yet their Arabic or African names and faces leave them in a labyrinth of self-identity. A foreigner in their own home.

But I personally never felt any of this. Why? Because I posed no threat. I didn't apply to any jobs or schools that threatened to take the place of a 'true' Frenchman. I was temporary.

Of course, you can't talk about hijab without discussing religiosity itself. Paris is not the most spiritual place in the world. It is no secret how they feel about external representations of faith. The recent ban on the full veil, burqa or niqab, will begin to incur a 150 euro fine for every instance of violation. But not only is it illegal, it is seen as a symbol of backwardness. The ban is intended to "liberate" all women who wear it. No woman would willingly choose to fully cover herself in such a way, they think. Some view this a step towards liberation for women, but I see it as stealing freedom away.

It must be acknowledged that some women are indeed wearing the niqab not on their own accord, but this is not the way to combat the use of the patriarchal control seen here via religious ideology. Many others hold niqab to be an important and deeply valued part of their faith and identity. This isn't whether or not I agree with wearing niqab (I don't) but let's think about this for a second Sarkozy: isn't telling me what NOT to wear as despotic as telling me what I MUST wear? To me, the ban of niqab is as oppressive as its mandate. And with it, the French female Muslim prerogative is dead.

To understand the context of this hostile climate, one must take a look at the French historical narrative. The French fought long and hard to break ties with the Church and its salient influence on all parts of French governance, life and culture. After such a painful and victorious separation from the Church, they find it extremely difficult to understand an active choice to believe in God and follow a religious dogma. Today,  a conversation with a Frenchman about God can make you feel like you're defending Santa Claus. One Parisian girl I met felt so ostracized and harassed in her hijab that she decided to give it up. In one place, I asked the front desk for a quiet spot to pray and I was told to "try the bathroom." I struggled with this sentiment at first but ironically found more solace in every prayer because of it.

The liberation front is only a small part of this initiative, however, as it also serves as a tool for repressing individuality and overt cultural diversity. The current of fear for the loss of true French culture runs deep. In my opinion, the energy required for such resistance far outweighs the costs of accepting and acknowledging the quickly emerging multicultural capital of Europe.

It is France that makes me grateful to have grown up in the US, where the seemingly large anti-Muslim sentiment pales in comparison. Not everyday is a struggle to prove my worth and American identity. Here, my difference is a strength.

But even with all this, I will always have a soft spot for Paris. It is a puzzling adventure with beauty that I have never experienced before. Paris writes a personal love letter to all its visitors--it sweeps you off your feet. I will come back to you, I promise.