Saturday, December 10, 2005

The tyranny of the intellectual

I have just walked out the doors of a Conference at Harvard University on the relationship between religion and the state in France and the US. For the most part, I have enjoyed the various panels and learned something from each participant. I must say, however, that the final panel finished in rather spectacular fashion.
The topic was Islam in the US and France. The final participant, the only French person, brought up what she rightly acknowledged to be a controversial topic, namely the veil in the public school. In a strange echo to comments from another panel the preceding day, she embarked on a sharp rebuke of the Imams who impose their conservative worldview on the poor girls wearing the veils to school. When she pointed out that everyone seems to be talking about the 1,200 girls who wear the veil (some of them against their will), she was more intrigued by the other 200,000 girls who don't wear the veil and want a classroom free of religious symbolism and oppression. This was the big work - oppressed. These poor girls (on both sides of the figures) were "oppressed" by radical Imams.
This is not an argument that you would hear in the US, since American political and cultural debates focus more on rights than responsibilities. Freedom is a big deal on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the US it leans toward "freedom to" while in France it tends toward "freedom from." This particular French argument rests on the assumption that the French State has the responsbility to guarantee the rights and freedom from oppression of the 200,000 other girls (plus X# of the 1200 who don't really want to wear the veil - an assumed majority). In the US as long as the veil does not infringe on another's rights, narrowly defined, it is allowed.
But here is the shameful point: when it came to the question and answer period after the various participants presented their papers, many hands went up in the air, including the hand of the one woman in the room wearing a veil. For 45 minutes she tried to get her question acknowledged, and for 45 minutes she was passed over as the panel chair took question after question from researchers and professors, especially from those who had already presented the day before. The one person who might be able to respond from the perspective of the subject was totally ignored. Afterward, I searched her out in the hallway to ask her what she intended to ask. Visibly frustrated by the recent slight, she nevertheless expressed her objection to this constant desire by the intellectuals to "save her" from Islam's oppressive tyranny.

What do they know about my decision to wear the veil, or any of us? They talk about oppression and wanting to free us from symbols of oppression. I find them oppressive. Maybe they are the ones oppressed, by a sexist culture. Shall I try to free her?

Agree with the comments or not, but the fact that they were passed over by intellectuals who are supposedly working on understanding and explaining the situation in France and the US speaks volumes.
When the panel chair was asked by the young woman afterward why she didn't take her question, she responded with faux shame, "too many questions, too little time. You know me; it is nothing personal." Quelle honte!

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