Conclusive Remarks on Islam in France and the USA

October, 2016

My relationship with Famoro, in fact my relationship with all my West African friends and mentors, has been complicated, to say the least. There are several major cross-cultural obstacles that recur to throw wrenches in an otherwise inspirational bond, obstacles that usually boil down to ways of handling and exchanging time and money. In all our troubles, however, Islam has been, if anything, a smoothing factor, a prayer-time, a recalibration, a recollection of our finer qualities—patience, humility, modesty—calling us back from whatever stresses of daily life have put our feathers in a ruffle. I find similarity with my own daily practice of morning yoga and meditation, with a prayer that all beings may be happy and that to each one I meet, I vow to treat him or her with compassion.

I call Famoro from Paris to ask his thoughts on the current burkini debate that has brewed in France in the months since the Nice attack of July 14, 2016 when 86 people were killed by a cargo truck deliberately driven into a crowd celebrating the national holiday. He says that women generally wear bathing suits on the beach in Guinea. He seems undecided. Then he concludes by telling me that the French are right: In a non-Muslim country, people should respect the norm of that culture. If women want to be modest on French beaches, they should have a private beach for themselves. This was not the answer I was expecting. I would have to sum up Famoro’s opinions as moderate and respectful of the relative cultural milieu in which he lives.

The French government prohibited the wearing of the burqa in 2010, which meant that women could not conceal their faces in public spheres. A burqa is a full-length robe with veil that covers part or all of the face. It is rather unfortunate that the burkini, misleadingly, sounds like a burqa. The burkini is in fact much closer to a hijab-style dress that exposes the entire face. Women who wear hijabs often choose beautiful colorful scarves, marking their fashion sense and identity, and they (by French law) expose the entire face. In September 2016, Le Monde du Religion devoted their monthly magazine entirely to the history of the voile, or veil, meaning in this case, any piece of clothing that wraps around the head and not necessarily but possibly the face, tracing it back to ancient Greece, long before Islam, and stating its presence in many religions including paganism. The magazine also noted that the veil is worn by men. It seems that the French Le Monde editor hoped to quell the outcry against the burkini. The ban on the burkini was rejected by the French high court earlier this month. Women can wear them next summer in Nice and Marseilles.

Burkinis, modest bathing suits, come in bright colors like turquoise and royal blue. They are akin to stretch pants with a long-sleeve, long-length rash-guard shirt. They cover the neck and head, expose the face, and have a thin miniskirt to cover the bifurcation of the legs. One French (mid-aged artist) friend responded, “Hmm, sexy!” when I showed him a photo. He meant it. Another bright young French musician friend shed light on another French perspective for me. He agreed that it is a form of oppression against women but that it is not that simple. “We shouldn’t ban them from wearing burkinis,” he explained, “and I hope that they will feel free to stop wearing them in France, one day. But it is more complicated than that. It is their culture, too. How can you stop them from something they were born with? ” In fact, they look a lot more attractive, I’m sure, than me, when I kite-surf in the late Fall in the Atlantic in a full (black) wetsuit with a hoodie. Should I be banned from the beach?

My French Facebook friend who started the burkini comments (a few blogs ago) compared both the burqa and the burkini to an SS officer uniform to which he would take equal offense. Are we confusing our terms here? Or is it a gross difference of opinion based on our experiences and cultural milieu (French vs. American)? I’ve seen women wearing burqas when I pass through the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Black burqas with an inch-wide slit for the eyes, and dark blue burqas that covered the body entirely, including the face. Downright bone-chilling. They look like phantoms, not people. They are spooky. What are they hiding under there? I’m okay with France’s ban on the burqa, the concealment of the face. Alas, I do not know any burqa-wearing women, nor I am not invited to know them. I should not judge, but I cannot believe that any woman would choose this for herself. It must be mandated from powerful men who want to control their women.

Do I sound like my French friends in their opinion of the burkini in my own view of the burqa? Is it because I have lived temporarily in a modestly Muslim West Africa culture and have modest Muslim friends that I find the burkini entirely acceptable? Am I justified in my judgment of women wearing a full burqa, or am I intolerant? My Israeli friend reminds me that they do not have the freedom to decide, and that makes all the difference.

I think of smart, beautiful, multicultural, multilingual sixteen-year old Sona back in the Bronx. I think of her family, a family that has expressed not just tolerance but matter-of-course respect of multicultural diversity. I consider all of the cross-cultural lessons as wisdom that I have learned by virtue of apprenticing and spending time with Famoro and with Muslim communities in both New York and West Africa. This wisdom encompasses patience, generosity, and choosing to put human-to-human interaction over rushing to fit everything into the day. Certainly these experiences have made me a better person and have reinforced my own spiritual practice.

Famoro’s daughter Sona and many other children born to immigrants straddle two worlds, one that is predominantly West African Muslim and one that is secular and diverse American; one that functions on African Maybe Time (AMT) and one that functions on New York Time (NYT); one that privileges human relationships over being on time; one that has a place for negotiating the exchange of money based on personal values and not on a fixed rate. Maybe Sona’s decision to wear a hijab after marriage relates to a preference for the West African value system, for her father to show up unannounced on a weekend rather than for him to call and plan ahead. Either way, to me she is entirely tolerant and respectful for both modalities, while she herself leans toward a more devout persuasion. We have a lot to learn from her. I worry, if Americans are to judge Sona for her decisions, will she start to feel that she does not have the freedom to decide? And will that make her want to judge them back?

West African culture is undoubtedly different from cultures that practice Islam in many other parts of the world. The point is that Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, and we cannot judge a person by her or his religion. In this blog series, I try to illustrate through my experiences that many positive attributes come with West African (Muslim) immigrant culture, practices like jeliya, like respect for elders, like prayer time. These rituals and customs carry with them important values, wisdom that we may have lost sight of in our fast-paced democratic society suffering from issues of self-esteem, of racism, of efficiency of time over people, of greed, of money hoarding. If we open our minds to the cultures that we fear, we might find that we have something they can teach us as well. We are not giving up our democracy, our freedom to dress as we choose. Certainly more Muslims can stand up and fight for the reformation of their religion as well, against the extremists that call themselves Muslim but who misinterpret the principles of the religion for their own use. Christians have done it. Jews have done it. But what motivation do Muslims have to join the world in the fight against terrorism if we are prejudging them as a whole? We need to take a proactive stance in creating more cross-cultural, cross-religious experiences lest we make a vital mistake that thrusts us farther apart rather than bringing us together. The moment is now.

I consider my fear and dislike of women in burqas on the one hand, and total acceptance of both hijabs and burkinis on the other. This is part of a contemplative anthropology, reflection on why and how we create our boundaries. I try to open my mind, aware of the fact that my opinions have been formed because of my cultural upbringing and based on my experiences. I intend to create a cross-cultural space in which people from seemingly opposing customs and social norms can come together around mutually shared activities like art and music, so that cultural constructions feeding discrimination may crumble. But I have to wonder, will the women in burqas be open to such an experience? Or is it not even their decision to make? At any rate, I can invite them if I can find them. I feel it my responsibility to do so, not only as an anthropologist but also as a human being.

Lisa Feder is an American post-academic cultural anthropologist based in Paris France. She engages in her own style fieldwork, a combined contemplative anthropology and embodied musical practice which she expresses through blogging, ethnographic film without narration, and oil paintings. Lisa develops alternative cross-cultural immersion programs for American and Canadian professors and students in France and other locations catering to creative and imaginative ethnography. See her website at