Global Human Rights
What I see first are their eyes - a sea of variegated color. You might think there couldn’t be much difference, that only three colors are possible to begin with. Blue, green, brown. But since when is the blue of a robin’s egg the same color as the blue of a very deep pond? When you look at sand, is it the same shade as fertile soil, the same as oak grain, the same as the back of my hand?
These girls are infinite, I think. Infinity. And then I think, too: I’m in far past my depth.
The reason I am so focused on their eyes is that nearly every girl has covered her hair with a scarf. Some are tied or draped artfully; some were clearly hasty additions, arranged with no mirror after the wearer sat down in class. It is my duty as professeure of our lycée to ask each and every one of them to bare her head. I’m supposed to be discreet about it, calling a girl into my office, for instance, so as to remove the request from public scrutiny. Of course, it is not really a request, and discretion is not really possible.
Ines has eyes like the wings of a kestrel, russet-colored with black specks. And they yawn open instead of fluttering, as if she were stretching them, preparing for flight. From her position in the center of the room, Ines stands up and walks to my desk. The class is supposed to be working on a writing prompt, which I prepared on the board before the students arrived. But no one is writing, no one is even holding a pen. They all watch Ines, as she descends the steps of the arena-like classroom and then stands before me.
“A word, mademoiselle?” she says. Very self-possessed for a fifteen-year-old. “Perhaps in your study?”
“That will not be necessary,” I say. I remain seated, although I’m not sure if this gives ground or holds it, as Ines now has the advantage of altitude. “Anything you have to ask me you may ask here.”
“Alright.” She stares at me, and though I hold her gaze, I can tell that the rest of the class is staring too. “You are from the banlieue.”
I raise my eyebrow.
“That is not a question, Ines.”
“No of course not.” She shakes her head, and the rose-colored scarf that she has tied there flutters slightly. Ines has worn a scarf for as long as I have known her, and I cannot imagine what she would look like without one. It would be like seeing a girl with lustrous curls suddenly shave her hair with a beard trimmer. “What I mean to ask,” she continues, “is why you do not want us to wear hijab?”
Though nothing has been said about the headscarf ban today, my position is known. I stood with the school when they declared their intention to follow Chirac’s new law, banning outward symbols of religion in all French public schools. Keeping my gaze level with Ines, I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear.
“You are from the banlieue,” Ines repeats, “and your mother is named Leila and she is a modest woman. My mother raised me to be a modest woman as well. It is my right to wear a scarf and also to be educated, and,” she adds, realizing that she has again failed to ask me a question, “I am wondering why you do not wish for me to live as I choose.”
I have to bite back a bark of laughter, because normally when a fifteen-year-old is asking me why it is she can’t live as she chooses, the issue is her curfew or her parents’ desire that she should study harder in math.
It’s true that I grew up in the banlieue, the same suburb of Paris where our lycée is located. I chose to teach at this particular lycée because I remembered the struggle of being young and out of place, a child with skin the color of coffee and a strong urge to read and write and learn. My mother, who is indeed quite modest, did not want me to go to school, because our imam taught that girls did not belong in a classroom where they could be exposed to dangerous ideas. I went anyway.
“I wish,” I purse my lips and think. “I wish for you to learn more ways to live before you choose one, Ines.” I tap my index finger on the whiteboard behind me, as if the instructions for such living were located there. “And I wish to follow the law, which says that the people of France are free to pursue any religious life they choose, but not in a school that is funded by our government.”
“Ah,” says Ines. “Ah.” She folds her hands behind her back, as if preparing to recite a poem. “You think you are helping us to be free?”
The headscarf revolt was Ines’s idea. I know, because teenage girls are not good at keeping secrets in the halls. They whisper and chatter and wish to confess, particularly when they are filled with a delicious fury.
But even if I had not heard girls talking, planning, saying her name, I would know because Ines’s face is crumbling, now that she sees I am standing firm.
“Alright,” she says. “Fine. I do as you say, mademoiselle.”
Half of the girls in my classroom right now who are wearing hijab are not actually Muslim. They are friends with Ines, they like her, and they want to do as she tells them because it is a powerful feeling: defying the rules. But for Ines, as for my mother, hijab is something real. Not the unbearable weight it was for me, but a warmth she wraps around her heart, a hand she holds out to God, asking for grace.
Slowly, Ines unwraps her blushing pink scarf, and her hair falls down around her shoulders. Beautiful hair, teak-black, and thick. It obscures her ears, her neck, her face. And then Ines shakes the hair away from her eyes – an easy gesture, practiced. Perhaps she has done this in front of a mirror in her bedroom. And maybe she’s practiced, too, the look on her face. Lower lip trembling. Those eyes of hers, which I have admired, heavy with tears.
I am not immune to the irony of having grown up and become not a liberator, but the voice of an oppressive no. All the eyes in the classroom are on me: ice blue and mountain brown; green of the trees and dark of the earth. I like Ines. She is a strong person. And I understand that she does not believe she needs to be protected from what I wish to protect her from – the feeling of being cast out or held down by the world she was raised in. Perhaps she’s right.
But what, I wonder, if Ines is wrong? If she loves this scarf, this modesty, the way a prisoner loves their kindest jailer?
I hold out my hand and take the scarf that Ines offers, even as she wipes tears away. Quietly all the girls in the room come up and hand me their scarves, which I fold and stack in piles of gorgeous color on the edge of my desk, to be reclaimed after class. None of us in this classroom knows who is right. None of us knows properly who to believe in.
The girls sit back down at their desks, and begin writing down their thoughts on the stories of Balzac.