In any metropolitan area, there is always a lot of diversity to be found. That is one of the many reasons why I love Temple so much and also cities in general. Paris is no exception. While walking the streets or in the metro, I hear not only French but also Arabic, German, and Spanish. There are new faces that I see everywhere, everyday. Diversity comes in many different shapes and sizes: different languages, religions, ethnicities, and cultures are all part of living in an urban environment. Something that has been unexpectedly present in my Parisian life has been the Islamic religion.
I am taking a “Muslim Presence in Europe” class. It has been on of my favorite classes thus far. One of the most prevalent topics of discussion in the class has to do with France’s ban on visible symbols of religion in public schools, otherwise known as laïcité. Essentially, this law was put in place mainly to prevent girls from wearing hijabs, or headscarves, to school. I had heard about this controversy before I came to France, and had what I thought was a very firm and well thought out stance on the subject: the hijab=oppression of women, so therefore, the ban of the hijab=liberation of women. The controversy, however, is far from simple. Without going into very complex details, I have learned about Muslim immigration, Islamic culture, and how the hijab is in fact a part of many Muslim women’s personal identity, and not a form of oppression. The class has allowed me to look not only at the hijab controversy, but also Islam as a whole, from a completely fresh point of view, which has in turn allowed me to form new opinions and stances on a religion that I knew very little about prior to coming to Paris.
Another way that Islam has been present in my life touches a bit closer to home, quite literally. On my very first day in Paris when first met my host mom, Ghanima, in my new home, one of the first things I noticed was an Arabic calendar on her wall. I pointed at it and told her that I thought Arabic was a beautiful language, then asked her if she spoke it. She smiled a bit and told me that she was Muslim and grew up in Algeria. She then said that she was nervous about telling me that she was Muslim before I arrived because she didn’t know what kind of preconceived notions I might have had. Of course, I was completely fine with it. In fact, what I believe now and what I didn’t know then was that I received the best host family out of all my friends. Not that theirs aren’t great, but Ghanima is especially warm and loving towards me. She makes me really wonderful food every single night that I am home and helps me with my spoken French. This past Tuesday night was particularly memorable. I had made cookies the weekend prior. I had given her some, and she had said that she loved them and then asked me how to make them. That night, I showed her how. While we baked, I asked her to turn on her Bollywood music that she sometimes played while she was cooking, and which I loved. Instead, she pulled out her computer and some old DVDs of her belly dancing! She was actually really good. Belly dancing isn’t tied to Islam, but it’s considered a performance art that is very popular in Middle Eastern countries. It is a night that I know I will look back on when I think about my French experience because we had such a wonderful time together.
By taking a class on Islam and also having a Muslim host mom, my eyes have been opened to the religion and its context in France. Before my trip, it was the last thing I thought of when I imagined Paris. Now that I’m here, though, I recognize Islamic as well as other religion’s significance here in Europe. Being here has showed me that I can’t always lean on the American media’s portrayal of what might be happening in different parts of the world. In a larger context, learning about religion through a different point of view is essentially the reason why I wanted to study abroad in the first place. It is teaching me to be more critical of what meets the eye. Through learning about Muslims and their religion here in Paris, I’m learning to dig deeper in more ways than one.