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Before I begin, allow me to briefly explain why I am writing about this topic. Coming into college and during my first semester, I did not have the same academic interests as I do now. It was not until spring of last year, my freshman year, that I realized what exactly I wanted to study and the path I wanted to take in my four years at Wash U. While, last spring, I initially thought I would double major in anthropology and international studies, and then decided to major in anthropology and minor in international studies, and now I am majoring in international studies and minoring in anthropology, my interests have remained the same. Enrolled in Crossing Borders last spring, I did a group project on this headscarf issue in France. My group read The Politics of the Veil by Joan Scott, and then gave a presentation to the class about the issue. This project was the first I did in college where I was really able to delve deeper, beyond what we learn in class, into an issue that interests me in my academic field. The issue is not solely about a fear of Islam—it goes much, much further. It’s about the larger issue of assimilation and multiculturalism in France, which plays into the even larger issue of assimilation and multiculturalism in Europe, which plays into the still larger issue of identity, belonging, and understanding on a personal and global context. This topic is yet another perfect example of a contemporary global issue that fits in with the themes of this column.

In 2004, the French government enacted a law that banned attendants of public schools from wearing “conspicuous signs of religious affiliation.” While this law was not explicitly written against Muslims in public schools (in addition to banning the various forms of headscarves from being worn, it also banned yarmulkes, large crosses worn outside the shirt, and other such forms of religious symbolism), many saw and still see the ban as geared primarily around anti-Islam sentiments. In the following years, accounts of young girls being expelled from their schools for refusing to doff their headscarves only helped to fuel these feelings. The law only pertains to public schools, but the emotions that led to its enactment, and the counter-emotions against it, have expanded into many other aspects of French society.

My first question is: What exactly does it mean to be “French?” Up until the middle of the 20th century, France held much of Northern Africa (the Maghreb) as a protectorate colony. Today, much of the Muslim population in France is immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Maghreb. Immigration from the Maghreb brings Arab culture to France, and it is this influx of cultural Otherness that drove France to enact the law in question; French people banned the wearing of “conspicuous symbols of religious affiliation” in public schools because they thought that one would not be “French enough” by doing so. But had French culture not already been brought to the Maghreb when it was under French control? Was the Maghreb not considered a part of France? Why can’t the spread of culture, the miscegenation work bilaterally? What makes France, Europe, the West so special?

Can a person be French and Muslim? According to Joan Scott, multiculturalism refers to the idea that someone can belong to multiple cultural backgrounds. Says Scott, “we need to recognize and negotiate differences, even those that seem irreducible—an outlook many French commentators would dismiss as American and multiculturalist (synonymous in their view).” French people have this notion of what it means to “be French,” and wearing headscarves, or any other “conspicuous symbol of religious affiliation” is not “French.” Because I’ve been so interested in this topic, I’ve actually been trying to hold off on writing about it. But this fits in perfectly after the last column because first and foremost, before this becomes an issue of assimilation, this is an issue of nationalism. Supporters of this law are French people who are proud to be French, and believe that other French people should share this feeling of pride. Once you become a citizen of France, you must become “French.”

To become “French,” or to become part of any new culture for that matter, you must assimilate. The French are worried that the appearance of other forms of culture will make their own disappear. Is that too unreasonable? I am an advocate of acceptance, but also of identity. Retaining one’s identity is essential in such a crazy, ever-changing world. So, is there a feasible, acceptable mid-ground for this issue? How does France remain “French” without stripping Muslims and other ethnic minorities of their own forms of identity?

Or, in a general sense, how do we remain ourselves without closing ourselves off from others? Assimilation, multiculturalism, and fear of a cultural Other are not problems only found in France, or even only in Europe. It’s simply a matter of how these problems manifest themselves in different cultures across the globe. If you don’t believe me, consider our very own United States of America. Why are we so afraid of the rapid increase of Latin American immigrants in recent decades and the inevitable continuation? We Americans have our very own notion of what it means to be “American,” and oftentimes facets of foreign cultures just do not fit in. The world is in a constant state of change: people are constantly flowing from one area of the globe to another, and bringing their cultural backgrounds with them. Miscegenation is not something to be feared, but something to be regarded as inevitable, or maybe even something to be relished. In today’s world, multiculturalism needs to be looked at with reverence, not revulsion.

As usual, I don’t have answers to any of the questions I’ve asked. But all of these ideas beg one final question: Where do we go from here—how do we react to the various changes the world is constantly undergoing? As has been the case with my previous columns and as will be the case with future ones (in my next column, my last until 2011, I will discuss the likely secession of Southern Sudan from Northern Sudan), I have hardly done justice to the complexities of this headscarf issue. I merely want to briefly expose these issues in order to get people thinking about this overarching question regarding the world’s constant state of change.

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David Klayton