Friday, October 8, 2010

Danger, danger!

Well, not really. A lot of people have been asking me if France is safe lately (except for my parents, who now know better, after years of experience with sensationalist media reports). The answer is yes.

Just today, the government gave final approval to a new law that prohibits people from hiding their faces in public (with a few exceptions, such as upcoming Halloween parties, if any). The main purpose of the law is to prohibit Muslim and/or Arab women from hiding their faces in public. The public and government perception of this practice is that it represents an unacceptable form of oppression of women, and so the hope is that by outlawing it, men who attempt to restrict the freedoms of their female relatives will be forced to relent, at least a little bit, and at least in public.

The reality is that almost nobody in France hides her face. Even though about six percent of the population is Muslim, most Muslims are no more religious than most Christians or Jews, and don't observe elaborate restrictions on attire. Not only that, but the practice of hiding the face is only common in certain Muslim countries, and isn't actually required by Islam itself (which only counsels modesty, not specific items of attire). What this means is that there are perhaps 1000-2000 women in France who conceal their faces out of Muslim or Arab tradition, while the rest do not. This also means that the law will have very little practical effect, since hardly any women hide their faces, anyway. But it is an important symbolic gesture, for better or for worse.

The law provides that women (or actually anyone) hiding their faces in public will have to pay a fine. It also provides, however, that men who compel their female spouses or relatives to conceal themselves in this way can be sentenced to pay a huge fine and even serve jail time. Here again, the idea is to prevent a general oppression of women from taking hold in France.

I can't agree with a law that dictates how people should dress in public, although I understand the motivation behind the law. The great majority of people in France favor it, although quite a few have the same reservations that I do. We'll see how it works out—it will take effect next year. Since so few women conceal their faces, anyway, there probably won't be many prosecutions … although a few women have been deliberately flaunting the future law to get media attention (such as one who was thrown out of the audience of a courtroom recently because she refused to reveal her face).

Anyway, this new law has angered a very small number of chronically angry males who believe that women are property, not human beings, and this has led to various acts of rebellion, the most visible of which being several phoned-in bomb scares at places around the city. In September, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice after someone phoned in bomb threats (no bombs were found). The government feels that the risk of protest actions, violent or otherwise, is elevated right now because of these angry young males. I'm sure in time the kiddies will settle down—people like them are always fuming about something, for anger is their nature.

As for actual “terrorist” actions, well, there have been none. Life goes on as usual. This does not prevent media outlets from making mountains out of molehills, nor does it prevent the band of cowards at the U. S. State Department from issuing travel advisories for Europe. But even the State Department merely said that travelers should be vigilant … not that they should stay at home and hide under their beds, although there are probably a few who will do that.

My parents know better now, as I've said, so they no longer send urgent e-mails or telephone messages asking if I'm still alive. And I have to admit that living in a big city that is so often in the news, and seeing the gigantic gulf that separates media reports from reality, has taught me to be extremely wary of anything the news media say about anything in the world. In fact, I simply don't watch the news; I long ago learned that you don't really miss anything by skipping the news, and life seems a lot more pleasant when you aren't constantly hearing doom and gloom reports from “around the world in thirty minutes.”

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