6 October, 2004
...I finally had no choice. I must do the laundry if I am going to be allowed again anywhere where people gather. I’m reading a book on Wilfred Thesiger’s travels waiting for the washing machine to inform me that I may graduate to the clothes dryer. A lovely young woman in her 30’s I’d guess is talking on her cell phone. After a short time the woman strikes up a conversation.
“Bonjour”, she says.
She hears something in my voice.
“Are you Canadian?” she asks in perfect English.
“No. I’m American”.
Her name is N and she is a graduate of the Sorbonne. In addition to French and English she speaks Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. She has lived in France most of her life but is from Algeria. She is bright and engaging and very interested in America. She tells me that France for all of its talk of humanity and equality is a racist nation. She says this with no anger at all rather like a sociologist making a detached assessment after years of research. She tells me that even with all of her degrees ( 2 in international finance) and multiple language skills that the only work that she has been able to find is that of a waitress. She said she has been to many interviews and all seems to go well until they see her full name and her dark complexion. From just a few minutes conversation I can see that in an interview she would be poised, professional and impressive.
“I hope that you don’t mind me asking you a few personal questions. You see I am always trying to understand things and I always ask many questions, some people say to many.
This is how I learn. Would you mind”?
Amazingly she anticipates my question.
“I am a Muslim woman”, she says, “but I refuse to wear the veil. It is a symbol and a device to control women. All societies repress women”.
“Some repress more than others do they not”? I ask.
“Of course. I would not wish to live anywhere that took my choice or freedoms away”.
“Can you tell me something about the women who live in France or England who choose to cover up in a free society”?
“This is what so many people do not understand in the West”, she said. “What do you mean by freedom”?
“I suppose I mean choice. Are you not a Femme liberé?” I asked.
“No, I’m a human liberé. Look, it is far easier to comply than to be a revolutionary. Many of these women in France and England or the United States may live in a free country but they still have family, boyfriends and friends to contend with. If these people are always putting pressure on them they just want everyone to keep quiet and leave them alone and the way they get them to leave them alone is to put the veil on”.
“So it is not the woman’s choice”.
“No, many times it is not the woman’s choice”.
“That seems unjust to me.”
“Anytime anyone’s freedom is taken away it is unjust”.
As the conversation continued she talked about her love of Jazz and dance and other art forms. She talked of her dreams and of her realities and I thought, a number of times, what a remarkable young women. Our time together reminded me that in many parts of the world, covered and hidden, young women like N dream of lives with possibilities and the freedom to choose. I could not help but wonder if behind the millions of covered faces a gathering storm is approaching.