PERSPECTIVE – From LA to Paris: my experience of Religious Freedom in France

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*Written by Kirun Ahmad-Arif

From cruising down Pacific Coast Highway and hiking up Potato Chip Rock to admiring the Romanesque architecture in the Rues of the 16th arrondissement; moving from Los Angeles to Paris has been a radical change. Whether it is socially or economically, each respective part of the world has its différences, however the most noticable change has been Religious Freedom.

Looking back at having to memorize the Bill of Rights during the fifth grade, I can now stop to appreciate the First amendment which I considered to be the norm for every first world country. Upon arriving to Paris, one of the first terms I became aware of was laïcité –the french word for secularism. In the beginning, I assumed I had understood that concept. I was already familiar with the phrase, « Separation of Church and State » used by Thomas Jefferson which I came mentally prepared to expect in France, however the reality turned out of be slightly skewed. I always felt confident as a young muslim citizen that my country supports me to practice my faith peacefully and freely no matter where I am. I appreciate that it is illégal for an employer to discrimate a potential employée based on their Religious beliefs. I enjoy my right to dress in a respectful manner which expressed my religion in public. These little observations is what made me realize how valuable Religious Freedom is, which in other countries people are so fiercely fighting for.

While in California, Paris news about restrictions of wearing the veil streamed hère and there, but it never occured to me how much it would affect my everyday expériences until I experienced it first hand in France. A disclaimer is due that my opinion and perspective is based off of personal expériences and stories told by relatives and fellow French friends.

As a working dental hygienist, attending to my everyday Religious duties definitely required effort, as does for any believer of any faith who works. Running around with a hijab in a turban style, making sure to follow hygiène protocol and ofcourse providing the best expérience for my patients, time very much flew by. During my lunch break was really the only time I had the chance to properly sit and read my daily prayers. Not once have I ever hesitated to sit outside my dental office on a bench and perform my daily prayers due to fear of an authority telling me it is against the law. Not once have I ever felt cautious of someone glancing at me performing my prayers possibly thinking I am some sort of extremist. Not once have I ever felt embarassed eating lunch with other co-workers and excusing myself to go read prayers. Having this comfort, in my opinion, stems from the atmosphère of tolérance the society from which I have been raised in comes from. Granted, I will not deny that occasionally I have encountered préjudiced people who, in reality, seem uneducated about different faiths or fear what they do not understand. Another point to be mentioned is that just because I read my prayers did not mean that I spoke to my patients about converting to Islam. Just because my employer who was a Punjabi Hindu, observed fasts every Monday and kept a Ganesh statue in his office did not mean he required all his employées to wear Kanavas. Just because my coworker was a Philipino Catholic who would wear an ash cross on her forehead on Ash Wednesday did not mean she would cater extra to Catholics only. Instead it was the opposite and patients would even compliment my different colored scarves. The implant speciality dentist who I worked for was averaging $1 million in production, so the excuse that being religious hinders business is obviously not the case.

My main point being that surrounded with Freedom of expression of religion and implementing secularism can harmoniously exist. It dépends on each individual of society and law makers whom we elect and trust to make décisions.

From living over 20 years in such an environnent to moving to a place where if I go to a park, I have to discreetly perform my prayers so no one will report me of suspicious activity. My family hère has even warned me while praying to not show any sign of the positions of prayer because someone can report you. I mean, COME ON. It probably does not help that 1 month prior the Charlie Hebdo attacks occured, but why punish the innocent majority. Every year, on September 11 in school, I had to watch documentaries about the Twin Tower attacks, which I fully supported watching, because thèse attacks were performed by terrorists-not Muslims and we should, as human beings, sympathize for the many innocent lives taken by thèse barbarians. My main point being that, I understand that when a nation goes through a trajedy, it inspires people to make changes to ensure thèse attacks do not occur again. However, making sure girls cannot wear a hijab in schools or a président giving permission for people to mock religion, is certainly not a solution.

Another incident I have encountered was when I had to take my photo in France for my resident ID card. I completely understand the importance of photo ID and making sure to clearly see a person’s face to match an identity to prevent crime and identity fraud. Nonetheless, making veiled women remove their headcoverings is honestly pointless. It honestly was not the fact that I had to physically remove my scarf, but the fact that someone told me I had to against my wish. What kind of freedom is that ?

From an outsider perspective, obviously different intentions seem apparent. This stance may possibly even the reason behind such racism and civil unrest here. Instead of placing unnecessary restrictions, how about we accept and respect an individual’s faith, encourage each citizen to love their country and motto – Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

*Kirun Ahmad-Arif is a dental hygienist who just moved from Los Angeles to Paris. In this opinion column, she describes the radical change she experienced by moving from one country to another. Having an outsider’s perspective, this article provides a critical analysis of the practice of Religious Freedom in France.

Quotation :

Kirun Ahmad-Arif, « From LA to Paris: my experience of Religious Freedom in France », in :, Folder : English Side – Perspectives, 2015, April.

One Response to PERSPECTIVE – From LA to Paris: my experience of Religious Freedom in France

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