This is the fourth post in Sally O’Dowd’s seven-part, music-inspired series dedicated to free speech and equality in light of the recent killings and hostage-taking in France. My first post saluted the vigils Wednesday night while the second one focused on those who lost loved ones. The third post from yesterday focused on the first post-attack meeting among the remaining members of the Charlie Hebdo team, their determination to question dogma and authority. Today, as millions of people gather for unity rallies in France, I salute modern, secular thinking, and the French feminist group Mouvement Ni Putes Ni Soumises.
On a beautiful summer night in Paris a few years ago, I was walking home from a first date that had started that afternoon at Le Jardin des Plantes and ended with an early dinner near Pont Saint-Louis. I left my date at the St. Paul Métro and proceeded to walk up the Rue Vieille du Temple (the old woman of the temple) in the Marais district. Historically a Jewish area, le Marais today is highly diverse with Jewish food vendors, the gay community, high-end boutiques and vibrant cafes, of which my favorite is Les Philosophes. On that street, I once bought earrings from a former Dior jewelry designer.
As one nears Rue de Terenne, the shops and bistros on Vieille du Temple drop off. What’s left are the backs of massive stone buildings lining the sidewalk. It becomes quiet.
It was still light out but I wanted to get my bearings. I looked across the street. I saw two North African men and looked away. I heard them cross the street. I looked back. I kept going. They whistled repeatedly at me like I was a dog. I looked back. One of them had unbuttoned his shirt.
I couldn’t get my friend on the phone. My heart beat faster. I saw three guys speaking English with American accents coming my way. I walked really fast toward them and asked them to walk me to the intersection. One of them had just moved to Paris from Indianapolis. I told them good things would come their way for the kindness they had shown.
This is one of a few episodes where I was threatened and taunted by North African men. On the other occasion that following fall, two North Africans spoke to the back of my head at an intersection as I waited to cross. I ignored them until they said, “Elle ne comprend pas.” She doesn’t understand. Another time, I was working out at the gym/hammam I discussed in my third post. Three North Africans came up to me and mocked, “Is that difficult?” I explained that it wasn’t. They felt better about my workout when I told them I was American.
Do men in other cultures taunt women? Yes. Does mysoginy exist in other cultures? Yes. But these are my experiences in Paris with North African men, all of which happened while I was alone and exhibiting my independence.
I want to take this occasion to discuss my views about the Muslim hijab (head scarf) and niqab (full-face veil). The European Court of Human Rights has upheld the French ban on the niqab, something I fully support. Moreover, the French state, which has insisted on secularism since the French Revolution, bans conspicuous religious symbols, such as the hijab, in public places. The majority of French citizens support this and I do as well. I am uncomfortable when seeing women in the head scarf. As a Westerner, I believe women should not be covered in any way. Double standards when it comes to gender equality and even dress have no place in modern society. My problems with this Muslim tradition of female “modesty” are no different from my problem with the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control and abortion.
“It is incredibly complicated, what is happening in France,” said CNN’s Christiane Amanpour five minutes ago while broadcasting from the Paris unity rally at La Place de la Republique, a short walk from where I lived in 2010-2011.
Indeed. As Leland Ware, professor for the study of law and public policy at the University of Delaware, wrote in July: “The problem is not that North and sub-Saharan Africans refuse to integrate into French society. The reality is France won’t allow them to do so.”
For my fourth post, I choose “Modern Crusaders” by the German band Enigma, which sings in French, English and Latin. In the Enigma tradition, the song drips with Gothic and religious overtones and unbridled sensuality. I dedicate the song to everyone around the world who believes in not only free speech but equality regardless of gender, race and sexual orientation.
The time has come
All the pain turns into love
We’re not submissive, we’re not aggressive
But they think we can’t defend
Stand up, join us, modern crusaders alive
We have the power to face the future
Cause we are the fighters
Just fighting for our rights
They’re accusing, like always without knowing
What is just fiction or what is the truth
They have no mission, they have no passion
But they dare to tell us what’s bad and what’s good!
–Sally O’Dowd is a former journalist who has founded Sally On Media, a company providing business strategy and integrated marketing services.