Still more déjà vu: Culture Wars (again)

Gender-neutral language

A couple of years ago, people fought culture wars about the semi-substantive issue of écriture inclusive [gender-neutral language]: should the French language ‘favour’ the masculine usage.

The Mots-Clés (‘Key Words’) group described French as a ‘phallocentric language’. France’s High Council for Equality between Women and Men urged public authorities to avoid ‘sexual stereotypes’ in their communication.

Part of the educational response was the issue of gender-neutral textbooks for primary schools. The 40 soi-disant ‘immortals’ – those Language Guardians who, since 1635, have been elected to the Académie française – were disquieted. The Académie pontificated upon the ‘mortal danger’ for the French language posed by écriture inclusive. [Novelists’ Note: Victor Hugo was only elected to the Académie française on his 4th attempt. Balzac was not elected despite 3 attempts. While Zola tried and failed 24 times.]

Gender-neutral text certainly can have the effect of slowing down writing and reading. Journalists derived amusement (and several articles) from this linguistic battle-front. Le Point‘s Woessner wrote: ‘Trying to read 130 pages of a report from The Economic, Social and Environmental Council written using inclusive language … An idea of torture.’

As far as school books were concerned, an uneasy truce was declared once Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, joined the discussion. In his view, the use of inclusive language in school textbooks was ‘not a good idea’. Schools needed, he said, to get back to basics (he’s that sort of Minister) on vocabulary and grammar, while inclusive language would only ‘add unnecessary complexity.’

Of burkinis and sports hijabs

Culture wars are fought over many terrains. They’re not always a straightforward battle between conservative traditionalists wanting to prevent liberals from allowing society to progress. And when both religion and the rights of women are brought into the mix, debates become still more vigorous. 

The burkini is an item of clothing created by a Lebanese-born Australian designer in 2004. As she wrote in The Guardian, Aheda Zanetti wanted her niece to be able to play netball without being encumbered by her hijab. In Zanetti’s view, the burkini ‘symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health’. In particular, it allows Muslim women to go to a beach or swim in a public place. [Swimming note: A woman wearing a burkini covers the same amount of skin (ie everything other than her face, hands and feet) as a person wearing a wetsuit and swimming cap. But if that woman is a Muslim, and she is on a French beach, then there’s the potential for waves to be made.]

In 2016, the towns of Cannes and Nice banned the burkini, along with nearly 20 other towns, mostly in south-east France. Some women were then fined €38 for breaking a local bye-law by defying the ban and wearing a burkini. To a man (I’ve not checked every single town, but I’d lay money they all were), the Mayor of almost every burkini-banning town was from the political right or ultra-right.

But it was a bit of a shock when up popped then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls (‘Socialist’), Defender of the Values of the Republic, to lend his support to the Beach Guardians. [Though, in all honesty, it wasn’t that much of a surprise when Valls sided with the right/ultra-right. On issues like this, Valls certainly believes (he is far from alone) in a form of state secularism which is to be used as a sword, rather than a shield. In other words, aggressively prosecute secularism for all its worth.]

Although Valls ruled out the introduction of any nationwide burkini ban, he commented ‘I understand Mayors who respond, at this time of tension [a month after the Bastille Day jihadist terror attack in Nice when a truck killed 86 and injured 458], by trying to find solutions and avoid disturbing public order. I support [burkini] bans if motivated by a wish to encourage people to live together, and there’s no underlying political motive.’ 

Behind the burkini, said Valls, erecting a giant straw person fallacy, is the idea that ‘by definition, women are immodest and impure and must, therefore, be totally covered. That is incompatible with the values of France and the Republic. In the face of provocation, the Republic must defend itself.’ 

A few days later, France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, overturned the order made by Nice. The Council of State summed up its view on the burkini beach ban fairly simply. It described the ban as ‘a serious, and clearly illegal, breach of the fundamental freedoms of movement, of conscience and of personal liberty.’

After fighting them on the beaches, the next war zone was to be the municipal swimming pool. French public pools requires all swimmers to wear ‘swimming costumes’.

Enter, centre stage, the independent administrative body called the Défenseur des Droits [Defender of Rights], established a decade ago. The DDD acts as ombudsman, oversees children’s rights, produces reports on issues of discrimination and can help those in prison or hospital whose rights have been prejudiced. The DDD received a complaint from a Muslim woman refused entry to a swimming pool because she wanted to wear a burkini. The organisation in charge of the pool defended its action on the grounds of hygiene and safety.

The DDD ruled in the complainant’s favour. The swimming pool was ordered to change its rules so they were no longer ‘discriminatory’ and to compensate the complainant.  

But one DDD decision is not, in itself, sufficient to change the world. Following this, Rennes and Grenoble have both seen citizens’ associations pursuing civil disobedience and demanding the right for ‘Muslim women’ to have ‘free access to services’ by being allowed to wear their burkinis in municipal pools.

And now for Controversial Garment Two.

Earlier this year, sports goods chain Decathlon (1000+ stores in some 45 countries) created their own waves by announcing the sale of a head-covering (designed in-house and previously sold in Morocco) which would enable Muslim women to run outdoors. Boldly going where few had been before, Decathlon announced ‘We’ve decided to make sport accessible to women throughout the world. We see this as our social responsibility.’ Emphasising that the wearer’s face would not be covered in any way, Decathlon expressed the hope that the garment would ‘encourage women to take up running.’  

Instantly, Decathlon was assailed by heavyweight criticism. Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn – accepting that the product was not forbidden by any law – condemned the decision to market the running hijab. ‘A vision of women which I don’t share’ said Buzyn, ‘I would have preferred a French store not to be promoting the headscarf.’

When one Minister speaks, can another be far behind? Muriel Pénicaud, Minister of Labour, took time off from worrying about the reform of unemployment benefit. Applauding Decathlon for having had second thoughts, she said it’s better not ‘upsetting people for business reasons.’ A small voice for the other side was that of Sports Minister (and Olympic silver medallist), Roxana Maracieanu. She pointed out that Decathlon, as a private company, should be free to do what they want, provided it’s legal … and that this would help women to practice running outdoors.

For what it’s worth, Nike certainly has no problem with showing American sabre fencer, Ibtihaj Muhamad (the first Muslim-American athlete to win an Olympic medal), wearing a hijab, in a great little film about female athletes, commented by Serena Williams.

People from all political parties attacked Decathlon. The Socialist Party’s leader in the National Assembly (and she wasn’t alone) called for a Decathlon boycott. Decathlon’s staff were threatened. 

Decathlon folded. All plans to sell the head-covering in France were withdrawn. A Deputy from the Government’s La République en Marche party, Fiona Lazaar, tweeted: ‘Pity Decathlon gave in to calls for a boycott, racist threats and out and out Islamophobia’. Hers was a near-singular voice of sanity.   

This is all by way of a lead-in to a far heavier and darker set of issues which many are currently struggling with: the secular state in the 21st century and its internal contradictions. More on all that soon.

PS I’ve been struggling with a new improved method of editing these posts, imposed upon the humble scribe by the overbearing corporation. Maybe it’s all just a means of persuading me to upgrade my contract with WordPress. Anyway, if any part of this post looks as though it’s more garbage-like than usual that’s probably because I’ve utterly failed in my attempts to get it looking right. In any event, I fear that the tweets won’t come out right. Should it all be OK, great. Otherwise, sorry.



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