Uncomfortable: Religion and Politesse in Public Spaces
This weekend my husband and I took a little trip without the kids to a big city. Toulouse is similarly sized to Denver, in my home state of Colorado. Sometimes Toulouse reminds me of Boston, with its red brick buildings and tree-lined streets. At the same time, Toulouse is a very contemporary French city. The population is diverse and the people on the streets are of all persuasions. In general, one feels safe and the mood is pleasant.
Normally, when we visit Toulouse we stay with family, but this time we rented a hotel room off of TripAdvisor (and Hotels.com). Saturday afternoon, after eating with my brother-in-law, we decided to stop and pick up some bottled water. Just because one can safely drink water out of the bathroom tap, doesn’t mean that one WANTS to drink water out of the bathroom.
As we are driving down the street, we saw a little market. Similar to your average French mini-grocer, with boxes of produce outside. I hopped out of the car and walked in. Unlike your normal French grocer, where the cashier immediately says “Bonjour!” I was greeted by silence. After a minute or so of trying to decide between flat water (l’eau plate aka Evian) or seltzer water (l’eau gazeuses aka Perrier), I realized why I had not been greeted. I was a tall woman, in tight jeans, standing amongst conservatively dressed Muslim men wearing robes and caps.
I picked out my water (no prices to be seen) and went to pay. I had to stand there for several minutes as no one would look at me. The men seemed to be arguing amongst themselves and talking around me. Finally, one gentleman came to address me. He rang up my water, which came to a total of 5,40 Euros. When I got out my credit card to pay (the only form of payment I had on me) he pointed out that they had a 10 Euro minimum for cards. I pointed out I only had a card. Generally, even in France if you can only pay with a card, a store will overlook his or her minimum to make the sale. Not this time.
This time, the gentleman offered to raise my prices (for 4 bottles of water) by 50 cents each. I gave a nervous laugh and said no, that is a little steep. He said we are done then. I said ok. And then he told me to put my bottles back. By this time, from the tone of his voice to his body language, the entire exchange had me feeling queasy. In fact, writing about it four days later is actually making my body shake. The tension in the room at the time was immense. I might have actually followed his instructions to put the bottles back, except for that I literally had to bolt out of the store. I was physically repulsed by the exchange. As part of the privileged class of white folk in the Western world, I am not used to this type of exchange. I am often surprised by French customer service, but then the French tend to see me more as an interesting curiosity. I may periodically be served with indifference, but that is not the same as hate.
Respect. Tolerance. Religious Freedom. The United States. France. And many other countries of the world practice religious freedom and religious tolerance. One is not supposed to be discriminated upon due to religious belief or practice of customs. I realize that what I experienced Saturday, may be what some Muslim women or men experience in reverse. Perhaps this is why these gentlemen opened a store. Of course, this then begs the question, if you open a store to protect your cultural population from discrimination, why would you reciprocate with hate? Or perhaps the store was opened, so that Muslim men, would not have to come in contact with Western women? And, by walking in the store, I had unknowingly upset the balance?
Whatever the case, tit for tat doesn’t make it O.K. and running a store on a large French boulevard, shop-keepers ought to be prepared to welcome all sorts of customers. When I first noticed the men in the store were dressed in Muslim garb, I was not put off in any way. Many years ago, when I was growing up in Boulder, CO there was a “Middle Eastern Grocery” store in the north of the town. It was a fun place to visit. They had interesting spices, the owner made his own Baklava, they sold dates in bulk. It was a romantic and friendly place to visit. The store made me want to travel and see the world. Perhaps at home, the man’s wife wore traditional clothing, but in his store, I was welcome. This is the way our world should be.
In our minds, in our homes, we can practice what we wish; however, when we mix with the world in which we live, there needs to be space for us to respect and appreciate our differences. I think one reason I felt this experience at such a visceral level is that I am scared of policies that seem to favor this growing divide. And whether it is reality or a sensationalist trick of the news media, it seems problems that we currently have in the U.S. and in France that stem from this divide seems to be growing larger and more common.
One thing I think that is interesting to note is that in France there is a much more authentic practice of laïcité or secularism than I have experienced in the USA. Conservatives in France are not proponents of one religion over another, they say that no religion should receive special treatment, this goes for Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and even Protestants. In spite of France having culturally Catholic roots (and most national holidays remain Catholic holidays), I am continually surprised that my experience living in France as a more secular experience than the US. And so, while Trump is proposing to make it okay to discriminate based upon religion (specifically Christian beliefs), France is balancing between two candidates who both propose that zero essentially zero preference for religious belief should be given.
The centrist candidate (Macron) says all religions should be respected, which for him means that people whose religious beliefs have a public component should be able to express those beliefs in public (aka wear religious clothing in public). At the same time, the conservative candidate (Le Pen) goes further and says that in public spaces, citizens should not be able to assert their religious beliefs, including clothing.
Now, I am not prepared to debate this issue any further here today, because as a delicate issue, it requires more time and space than I have at the moment. At the same time, I encourage you to discuss this issue in the public sphere, but without anger or accusation. In the ideal world, we would respect our brothers and sisters in public and not judge one another. We would not hate a stranger for her beliefs or her cultural background. Life is a two-way street. And no one should experience hate and or fear, simply for just being themselves.
The Oatmeal just published a little piece that addresses this experience of different beliefs and so before you get mad one way or another at what I wrote above, just let your feeling of uncomfortableness sit, and read this instead.