Last weekend, while rummaging through a drawer in search of one of my three passports, I came across a padded jewelry box. Opening it, I gazed upon one of my mother’s necklaces nestled inside. I pulled it out and held it up to the light. And in a flash I saw it dangling from my mother’s neck during the dinner parties she threw and loved so much. I remembered how it sparkled in the candlelight.
“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 a vague notion that I couldn’t. On the heels of a 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 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.”
My initial reaction to this ban, I remember, was negative. Born and brought up in Canada (True North, strong and free), I believed it 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 the face-covering ban includes all headgear: masks, helmets and balaclavas, the garments in question were the Islamic niqab and burka. A year earlier, Sarkozy defended France’s “secularism” to attack full Islamic veils in a speech.
Never before had we heard the words ‘secular’ (laïque), ‘secularism’ (laïcité) and ‘secularization’ (la laïcisation) mentioned so often.
“Secularism is the new religion in France,” someone funny said.
“I want to solemnly say that the burka is not welcome in France,” said Sarkozy. “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.”
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). Well, if she can wear the hijab, surely I can wear my mother’s necklace.
On Monday I discussed the matter with my Franco-Lebanese friend and colleague who is 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 party necklace was taking on ominous, no, biblical proportions.
“But we weren’t religious,” I bleated, “The necklace was worn 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. 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 and 90s, that her necklace would end up in Paris and become such an object of controversy in 2021, she would have been very surprised indeed.