Last weekend, while rummaging through some drawers in search of my passport, I came across a keepsake box. Opening it, I saw one of my mother’s necklaces nestled inside. My mother died in 1997, may she rest in peace and be reunited with my loving father.
Holding the necklace by its chain, I pulled it out and held it up in the light. And with a flash, I had a memory of my mother wearing it throughout the 1980s, during the dinner parties she threw and loved so much.
“This will look great against a black dress,” I said to myself. “I’ll wear it to work on Monday.”
Just to be clear and in the interest of avoiding a Kardashian-style copycat heist in Paris, this is costume jewelry. The stones are synthetic and the chain is metal, not silver.
And then a startling thought occurred to me. Can I wear this necklace wherever I want? I had an inkling that I couldn’t. On the heels of the recent ruling of the European Union’s highest court that now allows companies (if they so choose) to prohibit staff from wearing visible religious symbols, I paused to reflect. Then I fired up the internet to get more information.
Enshrined in a landmark 1905 law that prohibits the state from recognizing, funding or favoring any religion, secularism is taken seriously in France. State schools are strictly non-faith and all public bodies must be free of religious influence.
In March 2004, thirteen years ago and under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, French legislators felt the need to refresh and reinforce this 1905 law. And so they dusted it off and passed a new law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state (public) schools. These symbols include Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, Muslim headscarves and large Christian crosses. As a secular country, we were told, the ban was designed to maintain France’s tradition of strictly separating state and religion; it was also an attempt to enforce “religious neutrality” or “a neutral space.”
OK. My initial reaction to this ban, I remember, was negative. Born and brought up in Canada (True North, strong and free), I believed it to be a violation of religious freedom and civil liberties. I didn’t like the idea of a government telling me what I could or could not wear.
Outside of schools, the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is also banned in public buildings in France (courts and police stations, public hospitals and all government buildings).
Enter President Nicolas Sarkozy and yet another ban, this time prohibiting the concealment of the face in a public space. The law was passed in September 2010. Even though this face-covering ban includes all headgear – masks, helmets and balaclavas, we all know that the garments in question are the Islamic niqab and burka. A year earlier, Sarkozy defended France’s “secularism” to attack full Islamic veils in a speech.
As a side note: never before had we heard the words ‘secular’ (laïque), ‘secularism’ (laïcité) and ‘secularization’ (la laïcisation) mentioned so often. They are the new buzzwords that perfectly depict the zeitgeist of this era.
“The problem of the burka,” Sarkozy intoned, “is not a religious problem, it is a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It is not a religious symbol, but rather a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to solemnly say that the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we cannot accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom.”
“We must not be ashamed of our values,” he added. “We must not be afraid of defending them.”
By 2010, my opinion about government telling us what or what not to wear was becoming more elastic. I view the niqab (black full-face veil where only the eyes are seen through a slit) as a relic of medieval times; a suffocating sack imposed on women in Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, women are forced to wear the burqa by the Taliban. If they refuse, they are stoned to death. So what place do these godawful garments have on the streets of Paris in the 21st century??? Saudi Arabian values are not our values; Iranian or Yemenite customs are not our customs. France is not an Islamic country. Those garments do not belong here, nor anywhere else in the Western world.
Thank you, Monsieur Sarkozy, for having the balls to enforce this ruling.
So where does my mother’s necklace fit into this story? I was considering wearing it to work. At the office there is one hijabi, a French-Moroccan woman who wears the hijab (headscarf). If she can wear the hijab, then surely I can wear my mother’s necklace.
So on Monday I discussed the matter with a colleague of mine. She’s French-Lebanese of Christian faith.
“The wearing of a Christian crucifix will be interpreted as a provocation,” she said. “Personally, I wouldn’t wear it in the office. I wouldn’t even wear it walking around outside.”
A provocation? A Christian crucifix? My mother’s dinner party necklace was taking on alpine and ominous proportions.
“But we weren’t religious,” I bleated, “My mother wore the necklace purely as a fashion accessory.”
“Well, we don’t know that.” said my colleague.
Oh, for heck’s sake.
When I was growing up in Canada, religion was not an issue. At all. Now it’s a huge one. Why is that?
Sighing, I put the necklace back in its box and placed the box back in my drawer. If my mother had known, way back in the 1980s, that her necklace would end up in Paris and become such an object of controversy in 2017, she would have been very surprised.
Read this article, published yesterday in the British Spectator entitled “As a Muslim, I strongly support the right to ban the veil. At last, the European Court of Justice has made a stand for European values.“