A society in need of new impulses

Following the resignation of Rachida Lamrabet at Unia, Michael De Cock creeps in his pen and writes a piece for De Standaard.

Rachida Lambaret was dismissed from Unia (DS, 3 April) a few weeks after her interview in Knack. The reason for the interview was a piece she wrote at the request of the Goethe Institute and the KVS. It contains an amazingly interesting mental exercise. She confronts the individual freedom of a woman in a burka, who claims the right to cover her body, with the prevailing opinion on what freedom and oppression mean.

When I read the article a few months ago, I realised that it was incredibly provocative and shocking. In the meantime, the film based on her scenario has been online for several weeks. Until the Knack interview there was no cause for concern. In the interview, Lambaret states emphatically that she is speaking on her own behalf. What’s more, and even more importantly, she says she is not in favour of the burka, but nor of a ban. Again: she is not in favour of the burka, but nor of a ban. The point is that for her, it is not the burka that is the problem, or any other garment, but the oppression of women. This is precisely what she wanted to bring up in a monologue in which she gives words to a character. Spoiler alert: in art, in literature, a character’s words do not always reflect directly – word for word – the author’s opinion. What the author Rachida Lambaret brings up in her text is hotly topical: it is that the struggle for freedom in the Free West is frequently fought over the ‘female body’. In short, on the basis of an almost obsessive urge to liberate the Muslim woman, the dominant population group (mostly white and male) all too often wants to decide how women should dress – or not dress. The ultimate paradox is the image of the armed policemen removing a startled woman in a burkini from a summer beach.

Public lynching
We seem no longer able to take an adult approach to holding different opinions. It is apparent from the uproar that followed that Lamrabet had touched a sore point. Many demanded her dismissal even before they had properly read the interview, let alone her original text. In the arts, positions have always been adopted that go against prevailing thinking. What is more, shifting the boundaries and urging reflection are among the artist’s most important tasks. It is striking to observe that whereas fifty years ago a bare breast in a Madonna or free-thinking artists mocking Christ still stirred up a commotion, nowadays it is quite simply the headscarf (or the sympathy for it) that needles the free-thinkers. A few years ago, Fikry El Azzouzi was in conflict with the jury of the Ark Prize for Free Speech when he wanted to make a speech to the women of an organisation that wants women to decide about what they wear on their heads.

Lambaret has worked as a jurist for Unia for more than ten years. Why should her expertise now be liable to be pushed aside? In what way has she challenged her employer or said that she would not comply with the law? Rather than properly reading and trying to understand the issue she wants to raise, the option was for hysteria and a public lynching. The process is always the same: people are isolated, then are blamed for errors and poor performance, to the point where dismissal becomes inevitable. We are no longer even surprised by it. The people at the Goethe Institute in Washington and the person at the KVS who together commissioned the piece, reacted with astonishment to the uproar it caused and took up her defence and that of freedom of speech.

The mute button
Of course it’s not only about Lambaret. We are no longer capable of holding different opinions in an adult way. It is not only something to be deeply sad about, but is also a bad thing for our society. Fiery populism is winning out over listening to each other properly. And art and societal debate are worth much more than a tweet, which is not concerned with substance but has the sole aim of harming people. My colleague Gerardo Salinas, a city dramaturge at the KVS, summarised it thus: ‘Youssef, Dyab, Alona… and now Rachida, look for the common factor.’

It was to be predicted that the road to an all-inclusive society would not be smooth. But it is a problem that it goes hand in hand with the systematic exclusion of dissonant and often coloured voices. As if by pressing the mute button the problem and the opinion were also eliminated. Whereas precisely the opposite is true. The short-term effect is a serious impoverishment of debate. The long-term damage cannot even be estimated.

And I know them, all those reasonable arguments: that the timing wasn’t right, that it wasn’t the first conflict, that the employer already had problems… These are all familiar tunes. The best ministry offices and government departments, and also businesses and organisations, do not exclude expertise, but include it, especially when it is not so simple to acquire it. Precisely because we have such a need for voices like this. They fuel debate and represent opinions that remain below the radar too long and too often.
No one will be better for the profoundly lamentable dismissal of Rachida Lambaret. Not Unia, not the political world. Not even those who, in the time it takes to tweet, think for a moment that they have right on their side. A society that is incapable of giving a place to critical voices in an adult manner is in need of new impulses, and is in a questionable state. And a genuine and honest debate on integration will require greater courage from everyone. Even when it brings with it opinions that don’t suit everyone.