Under the name of France’s long-standing tradition of secularism, called laïcité, French law has restricted many Islamic religious practices in the last decade. These new laws, often dubbed Islamophobic by the international community, include banning the burqa and niqab in public spaces, forbidding headscarves in public schools and restricting public prayer. This summer, Victoria Lin ’15 examined the impact of these laws on Muslim identity through her Emerson Grant with Professor of French Cheryl Morgan.
“Laïcité,” as Lin stated, “exists as a measure to protect citizens and their rights. By separating the private religious sphere from the public political sphere, the government has no religious ties and the freedoms of citizens are preserved, maintaining the Republican ideals of equality and tolerance of all.” However, as Lin went on to explain, the use of laïcité to justify these laws that target various Islamic religious practices has received a lot of flak for what some believe to be a breach of religious freedom. Lin stressed the complexity of the issue, stating “The French have not only a very different conception of the role of the state, but also a much larger political/religious history that make these policies difficult to navigate.”
Lin plans to study this issue for her senior thesis in anthropology next year. As a precursor to that undertaking, she is creating a documentary photography project for her Emerson Grant to raise public awareness of the issue. “I hope to create a body of work comprised of photographs of spaces and portraits of my participants that gives a voice back to my subjects,” Lin explained. “The media has appropriated their image without their consent and demonized it, and my goal is to give the consent back to the participants and photograph them in their quotidian lives. It’s about documenting truth.”
In order to create this photo-documentary, Lin lived France this summer in order to establish contacts, interview participants, observe their lives and photograph them. Lin also read news reports and scholarly literature on the subject to examine how the media has influenced public opinion.
As for her assessment of the issue, Lin wrote, “I've come to realize that the demographics of French Muslims are very diverse and it’s nearly impossible to boil down their experiences into a single conclusion, which is why I'm focusing on multiple people for the portraits. However, in general, I can say that a lot of the issues stem from the French desire to protect their national identity, with the education system meant to act as the great cultural equalizer.”
Lin hopes to enter the Peace Corps after graduation and believes her work conducting participant observations this summer has helped her gain a cultural understanding that will prove to be valuable if she becomes a Corps member. This project has also given Lin an interest in photojournalism, which she said she is now considering as a possible career path.
Lin became especially interested in the topic of French Muslim identity after taking a class with Professor Morgan that surveyed the French colonization of North Africa and the subsequent immigration of many Muslims to France. Lin explained that she was particularly fascinated by the plight the children of these immigrants faced: “They were the children of France, yet never accepted as such, and concurrently too French to ever be Maghreb. They could never be French or Maghreb. As the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, it was the first time I heard my own condition expressed with such precision. The state of perpetual homelessness and cultural confusion was so familiar.”
Victoria Lin ’15 is a graduate of Parsippany Hills High School, NJ. Her photo-documentary will be displayed in the Days-Massoloo Center beginning November 1.