Freedom is Choice: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Valls

Dear Mr. Valls,

Yesterday, I read your article, “In France, Women Are Free.” After taking a few deep moments to collect myself, I have some feedback for you. You wrote about feminism and the freedom that women, especially Muslim women, have in France, two topics, which you clearly have no credentials to speak about.

The experience of freedom is something that differs from one group to another. Simply because you, as a white man, experience freedom in France does not mean that Muslim women in France are free. And just because you perceive Muslim women to be free, does not mean that they are free.

This is where my main problem with your article and opinion arises. You take your definition of freedom, which is inherently bestowed upon you in a patriarchal, white, secular country, and applying it to a group for which freedom manifests itself in an entirely different way than you want to believe.

As a feminist, I have spent a lot of time trying to define the word and understand the demands that come with identifying as a feminist. Ultimately, it all comes down to choice: the choice to be whoever you want, do whatever you want, and cultivate a life that you want. Of course, there are other factors that may inhibit these choices, like a lack of paid family leave (which your country excels at providing) and equal pay for equal work. But at the end of the day, being a feminist means that I allow, without judgment or scorn, other women to make a choice for themselves that I might not make myself.

This could mean supporting a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion in a situation where I would carry my own pregnancy to term, wearing a hijab while I choose to wear my hair uncovered, working in a strip club while I would work in a coffee shop. It means not criticizing women for wearing makeup, while I prefer to go makeup-free, and supporting a woman’s right to leave the workforce to raise children while I would rather remain childless and focus on my career.

Opinions on these issues differ no matter what. One choice cannot be considered universally better than another. What is important is allowing women the choice to do one or the other. That is true freedom; choice is freedom.

You, Mr. Valls, are free. You may or may not realize this, but you live in a country where you do not face the same choices as the women around you. You do not acknowledge the freedom you are granted because you don’t need to. You were blessed with freedom from the day you were born, because you belong to the powerholding majority. The people who create the laws, who define “freedom” for the rest of your society, largely look like you and experience the world as you do. By creating a definition of freedom based on your own lived reality, and applying it to the lives of individuals who have not contributed to the conversation, but are rather expected to acquiesce to a definition of freedom that for them, reinforces systems of oppression and marginalizes minority groups from the dominant discourse of those in power.

Who decides how to dictate “freedom” for other people? If Muslim women had been involved in conversations about banning the burka and the burkini, these would have had a different outcome, one that accounted for cultural norms and respected the choice to dress modestly.

Freedom is not something you can impose on people based on your own ideas of what “freedom” should mean to them. The mandatory laws you claim support feminism and freedom do not create equality or prevent an imposition of values; they suppress individuality and choice. They impose beliefs about freedom, what is right and what is wrong, onto individuals who are capable of making these choices for themselves. And in doing so, they suppress the freedom you so valiantly claim to support.

You say you are speaking for France’s Muslim citizens, claiming they are free and equal—but you haven’t shared their experience. You have never been forced to strip on a beach, or barred from bringing your children to daycare. You have not lived their experience, therefore you cannot comment on it. You speak only of your experience, and allow them to speak for themselves.

You may see yourself as a gallant man, a savior for repressed women who are forced to wear a piece of clothing you find threatening, a freedom fighter. But for me, you are just another man, telling a woman how to dress, live, exist all while cultivating a culture that is just as repressive and backwards as the one you imagine these women to live within.