France: Muslim Women Often Wrongly Stereotyped

A series of highly publicized incidents involving Muslim women have reinforced popular perceptions that an intolerant, sexist brand of Islam is taking root in France - home to Europe's largest Muslim community. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA that Muslims and experts argue Muslim women are often wrongly stereotyped.

Like most young women, Wafa Ben Salem goes out to movies and dinner, dates men - albeit usually with a chaperone - and is a self-avowed fashion maven. Still, she is a far cry from many of today's young women in France - in her body-covering clothes, the headscarf tied under her chin and Ben Salem's personal vow not to have sex before marriage.

A university student from southern France, Ben Salem says Islam frowns on women who are not virgins before they marry. And, as a practicing Muslim, she says she will abide its strictures. She says she may meet and date men and she will pick her own husband. But she says will remain chaste until she ties the knot.

The question of chastity and modesty in Islam has been much debated in France in recent weeks. First, a court in the northern city, Lille, annulled the marriage of two Muslims after the husband claimed his wife was not a virgin at her wedding. The incident sparked outrage.

More recently, the Council for State - the country's highest administrative body - upheld a decision barring French citizenship to another Muslim woman, from Morocco, who wears a face-covering burqa, or niqab. It argued what was called her "radical practice" of Islam was incompatible with French values. Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara - a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent - hailed the decision, calling the niqab a "sign of oppression of women."

Several other incidents, including allegations a Muslim husband prevented a male doctor from performing an emergency caesarean on his wife, have helped reinforce assumptions that Muslim women in France are living under the thumbs of their men.

But analysts like Franck Fregosi, a sociologist who has written extensively on Islam, warns against easy stereotypes.

Fregosi says that, far from being submissive, many Muslim women in France and elsewhere in Europe are looking for a fit between their faiths and the highly secularized societies in which they live. He says many girls will date boys - but hide it from their families, many of them ethnic immigrants who come from conservative societies in Turkey or North Africa.

Fregosi says some young women may even have sexual relations before marriage, but that they will still try to preserve appearances so their families will not know. According to media reports, a growing number of Muslim women in Europe are opting for surgery to repair their hymens - to give the appearance of virginity at marriage.

Fregosi says even very devout young women are struggling to break free from their cultural traditions - including shunning chosen marriages. He says they prefer to choose a pious husband, not a cousin or another man chosen by their family.

France's five million-strong Muslim community has offered mixed reactions to the annulled marriage in Lille and to the niqab incident. Many are not strict practitioners of their faith. A 2006 survey by the CSA polling agency found that, although nearly nine in 10 Muslims observe the holy fasting month of Ramadan, only 17 percent go to mosque regularly. Some 90 percent are said to approve the idea of equality between the sexes.

Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who specializes in Muslim issues, says even Muslim clerics here generally agreed that in the case in Lille the husband should have settled the question about his wife's virginity discretely and not in court.

University student Ben Salem agrees.

Ben Salem says that, if a woman is not a virgin before her marriage, that is her own affair and it is a matter between her and God. But she believes many French mistakenly considered the annulment as another example of Islam's bias against women.

Ben Salem claims the French media, in particular, are quick to stereotype devout Muslim women like herself; that they never go out; that they are subjugated by men; that they do not know anything. She says that is simply not true.

Anthropologist Bouzar agrees.

Bouzar says there are too many easy - and incorrect - biases against Muslim women here. She says, although some are becoming increasingly devout, they are also questioning the western model of sexual liberty and whether it truly represents more freedom.

Source: VOA (English)


Mark Tapson said...

Let's see - the Muslim women mentioned in this article go on chaperoned dates, do not reveal to their families that they have boyfriends, surgically conceal their lack of virginity from their newfound husbands, and struggle against a tradition of arranged marriage. And yet Westerners are accused of having misperceptions about the sexist nature of Islam.

And by contrast to Muslim women "choosing" chastity and modesty, it is suggested that Western women are all morally depraved and promiscuous, and that this is the only alternative. The truth is that Western women have choice - THAT is the essence of freedom and equality.

The article mentions nothing about the fatal consequences - honor killings - of Muslim women who openly attempt to assert their choice.

Anonymous said...

"Some 90 percent are said to approve the idea of equality between the sexes." Taqiyya much? Did they ask how many Muslims would like to see civil Sharia laws in place? I imagine that number would be well over 90%. "Equality" in this context of course in no way means actually regarding or treating women and men as equals, raising women to the level of humans in that culture, or holding men and women to completely different standards, i.e., still no legal rights, no sexual freedom (as this article made pretty clear), no inheritance rights, no career, no future, no anything but whoring one's life away in exchange for a free ride and a tapeworm's epitaph. Nowhere does Islam dictate that marriages are to be arranged. That is a cultural phenomenon. The men who own these women outright, usually fathers or brothers, still have to approve of the husband (the next man to own women these women outright, only as sex slaves by way of a money-for-vagina transaction). So these women ultimately have no say as to whose slave they are and they are still owned outright by some man. Way to dress up Dark-Age sex slavery only to to prove that absolutely no progress has been made whatsoever in terms of women's rights in Islam in almost 1500 years, VOA.

Esther said...

Hi Big Shaker and Jetabler,

As you point out, the women in this article are in a very difficult position.

The problem is that the woman wearing a burka was denied citizenship based on *her* submissiveness. I did not see anybody discuss the fact that she did not wear a headscarf at all when she lived in Morocco and only started wearing a burka due to the demands of her husband. What would happen if she didn't comply? Nobody really cares, apparently.

Anonymous said...

That is the point. She's in the free world. She doesn't have to comply, and if she does, it's her own stupid fault for never planning to do nothing with her life but whoring it away to some a-hole. Had she made a respectable life for herself, she wouldn't be in this predicament. But she chose to reduce herself to a parasitic sex slave baby factory to the exclusion of an education and a career and she has to live with the consequences. If she weren't a loser, she could leave that dude and get an order of protection, but she has apparently had so little respect for herself her entire life that she's not in a position to be able to do that. I can't feel sorry for people like that. It's not just Muslim women who end up like that either. Any woman who would ever settle for a man who didn't pull his own weight, do half the housework, pay half the bills, and generally treat her like a princess gets everything she deserves. Vagina trumps all. There' no reason for women to settle for less, especially if they're intelligent, respectable women who contribute something to the world. If they're not, who cares? They don't, so why should we?

Mark Tapson said...

jdamn13, I think the situation for many Muslim women is more complicated than just "never planning to do nothing with her life but whoring it away to some a-hole." The whole point is that unlike in the West, these women are prisoners of a religious culture that denies them basic rights and freedom of choice. Planning to do something with their life isn't really an option - unless that option includes becoming the victim of an honor killing.

Anonymous said...

Big Shaker, they have the opportunity to educate themselves in Morocco. They've made it to the West. They can pursue their education further and have careers. They don't have to live by those 3rd-world Dark-Age standards in the free world. That's what disturbs me so much - that they come here and still choose to live like it's the 3rd world, with the Dark-Age Nazi slave rags, the submission to sex slavery, the forfeiture of a career in favor of reducing oneself to nothing more than a vagina by breeding as many kids as possible for Allah's Army, etc. Also, Morocco isn't as backward as, say, Mauritania, Somalia, or Iraq. Women can not only pursue educations but receive scholarships from the government that allow them to study anywhere. It was her choice to live like that in Morocco, and it's her choice in France.

Also, we're all confusing this article with the earlier one about the niqab, but I'm apparently so argumentative that I had to throw two more cents in anyway.

Esther said...

Hi jdamn13,

I made a mistake.. apparently the woman denied citizenship claims that wearing a burka was her own choice.

In any case, why do you think they have a choice. Women who immigrate to Europe as part of marriage immigration gets permanent residence only after a few years of having been married to a local.

Mark Tapson said...

Hello jdamn13 - Opportunities may exist, maybe even in Morocco, but that doesn't mean Islamic women are free to choose them, even if they live in the West. The wife or daughter in a strict Muslim family, who dares to even think about pursuing higher education or a career, may find herself brutalized or killed by the husband or brothers or uncles (I just read recently that a Muslim man - in France, I believe - broke the nose of his wife for briefly lifting her veil in public due to the heat). And Muslims living in the West often simply do not assimilate; these women are part of a community that reinforces that sexist subjugation and provides no support for making Western-style life choices.

Anonymous said...

Again, that's my point. She's not in France as a citizen anyway, so there's no reason for her to be dependent on that dude. She can work. She can support herself. She can move away from her relatives, change her name, and get an order of protection. It's the free world. I realize that these women are largely under physical duress in that culture, but they have the opportunity to escape it in the free world. The sad thing is that many of these women get killed as teenagers when they try to assert a little independence, which is the entire purpose of one's formative years. But this is a grown woman. And I don't care what she says, Esther, that niqab is not her choice. If you believe she's under physical duress the rest of the time, why don't you think she's saying that under threat of violence or murder? No woman would willingly wear that thing unless she's wanted by the law.