Excluding Muslim Women

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The recent French ban on burkinis is a consequence of a process that started in 2006 when pupils were banned from wearing the hijab in public schools. Verso presents an extract from an article in which Sylvie Tissot examines why such a repressive policy toward Muslim women was unanimously embraced by the conservative majority and some left-wing leaders with so little protest. It aims at underscoring the specific phenomena that, on the basis of a new “orientalism,” contribute in France to institutionalizing a category of people on the basis of race and gender. The recent bans on burkinis are obvious consequences of a process that started in 2004. This article was first published in Public Culture, 2011 Volume 23 and reproduced on Les Mots Sont Importants.


Since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, a rhetoric that relies on feminist arguments has emerged as central to the growing stigmatization of racialized populations in Western countries, and notably of “Muslim” or “Arab” people. Public debates have contributed to anchoring a boundary between a “West” committed to equality between men and women and an “East” utterly opposed to it and, thus, potentially fertile ground for religious fanaticism and terrorism. Although this rhetoric has taken root in numerous countries, it is worth focusing on how it is being used in France. A related incident, that took place several weeks before the deputies voted the law, is telling : the police arrested and fined two women ; their crime was driving a car while wearing a niqab hence causing a safety risk because it could potentially obscure the driver’s vision (which supposedly could be endangered traffic). After the media revealed that the husband of one of these women was polygamous, the minister of justice suggested that the government deprive him of his French citizenship [3] – a punishment normally applied only to individuals deemed to pose a serious threat to the country. In France, the new “orientalism” is moving beyond shaping and producing representations : it is now materializing in judicial and repressive measures targeted at a racialized population.

The first explanation of how this is happening in France relates to the way that, since 2000, feminism has entered public debates. French governments had long been reluctant to embrace a forthright stand in favor of women and women’s rights—influenced, in part, by the idea that, because the country had a unique tradition of libertinism, power relations between men and women were less conflictual. Yet, since the early 2000s, not only activists, but also the media, politicians and intellectuals have repeatedly invoked feminism as a crucial grounds of their arguments. For example, the 2003 death by immolation of a young woman in an impoverished area in the outskirt of Paris at the hands of her boyfriend (both of Maghrebi origin) prompted a widely relayed public outcry and mobilization in the name of protecting women from male violence. The same year witnessed the creation of an organization “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” (they claim to be “neither whores nor subservient”), which benefited from this intense media coverage. One particularity of the new mainstream feminism is that it rarely points to a structural sexism in France, but prefers instead to focus on the sexism of one group of men, racialized men. Thus, since 2003, the media have regularly devoted articles to news items involving racialized men and/or women, although they rarely discuss statistics that show that domestic violence takes place in all socio-economic and ethnic groups.

The new focus on masculine domination was both restricted in scope and targeted within noticeably geographic boundaries. The newly mainstream feminism relies on very peculiar image of women and men. Women of foreign origin, specifically those living in projects—and, even more specifically, the Muslim ones—have replaced the traditional housewife as the symbol of female subservience. Now, public authorities claim to offer these female victims the means to escape the oppressive culture of “cités” (housing projects), and to emancipate themselves. A widespread consensus around this territorial definition of sexism was able to take hold, in part, because, in the 1990s, references to “quartiers sensibles (literally at-risk neighborhoods) became the most accepted way to analyze social questions in France. Of course, the fact that riots could be mapped onto certain spaces contributed to attracting attention to those spaces. But this spatial focus is not just self-evident : it conveys a peculiar vision. References to quartiers sensibles work to designate such spaces as at once homogenous and utterly unique, totally separate and distinct from the rest of the society. As a consequence, it leaves unquestioned the structural phenomena that led people, many of whom are immigrants, to live in impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities : notably racial discrimination ; housing policies ; and unemployment. From this spatial perspective, sexism in the city outskirts is a phenomenon that results from the particularities of the city outskirts. Thus, in 2005, commenting on the case of a woman of Maghrebi origin who had been attacked by a Pakistani man in the outskirts of Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy expressed a deep commitment to the principle of equality between men and women. This principle, he argued, was the foundation of laws of the Republic according to which, he contended, “women are free”. The violation of such a principle was blamed on a violent culture that came from outside of France.

The focus on racialized women as the only victims of sexism in France has logically nurtured a vision of women wearing the niqab as the most outrageous expression of masculine domination, a situation that cannot be compared with any other behaviors and outfits. Thus, to many, the condemnation of niqab is just common sense. But how could such condemnation result in a law excluding them from public spaces ? If these women are so alienated, why should they be punished ? While in 2004, the issue of repression was rarely raised because pupils are considered minors, thus expected to be subject to adult authorities, this should not have been the case for women wearing the full veil since they are adults. Yet, far from considering them as such, the defenders of the law have constantly oscillated between two visions, both of which deny their status as citizen. On the one hand, they tend to see these women as alienated individuals who should be saved— against their will if necessary: a vision encapsulated by the notion of “willful servitude”. On the other hand, to several members of the parliamentary commission and various commentators in the media, they represent a threat to French society, albeit a masked one. Women in niqab are the Trojan horse of extremist Islamism. In their view, the cloth does not only hide a face, but secrete intentions as well: to attack secularism and impose Islamic rule. Either totally deprived of free will, or a superpower, they are denied the condition of citizens, much less that of human beings. This is the reason why, in public debates, the impact of the law on the women themselves has rarely been taken into account. For example, because they are extremely religious, most of them now might well stay in the domestic sphere rather than take off their outfit to go outside the home. In the debates, this possible relegation behind walls disappeared ; the issue at stake was saving the country from the rise of “fanaticism”.

Excluding women from public space to save them was not the only paradox noticed by commentators [4]. Some have also pointed to the striking limits of the government’s commitment to equality between men and women. While the situation of a few hundred individuals became a national emergency, the government has still to implement its plan against domestic violence. The few feminist groups who oppose the law also see a real double standard in the government’s attitude. In their view, it has shown no concern with other practices—all more widespread than the niqab and highly visible in the public sphere—that could also be considered as symbols of women deeply alienated by the workings of patriarchy: cosmetic and diet products; high-heeled shoes; the mini-skirt; etc.

Faced with such criticism, the defenders of the law progressively shifted from the first image (alienated women who should be saved) to a more threatening vision based on the specter of religious fundamentalism. Even if the parliamentary commission proved unable to identify a specific link between wearing the burkha or niqab, Salafist movements, and terrorism, the deputies have repeatedly invoked the question of “public order’ and “safety’, which supposedly requires uncovered faces. This has reinforced the idea of fully veiled women as a security threat, a position that is stated quite explicitly. An expression used by the head of the parliamentary commission is telling : to him, the niqab does not represent a danger but is the “tip of the iceberg”, an iceberg that, in his view, threatens French society. As in the war on terrorism waged in the United States or the United Kingdom, a logic of “prevention” tends to prevail to the detriment of human rights.

To understand the priority given to repression, it is necessary to grasp the atmosphere of islamophobia that has developed in the last past years. Islamophobic feelings have deep historical roots in France. It links into longstanding hostility toward Muslims in general and, more specifically, toward the specter of Algeria. But the debates about immigration and “national identity” have played a major role in how Islam has come to embody the interior enemy. In 2007, when President Sarkozy was elected, one of his first measures was to create the controversial “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity”, thus implying both that French identity is a clear, homogeneous entity that needs protection and that immigrants have still to prove worthy of it. In 2009, the government decided to start a country-wide debate, based on the same premises, about what “being French” means. Prefects were asked to organize public discussions in every city. Demeaning public declarations by members of the government fully discredited the undertaking: one urged Muslim youth not to talk slang or wear back-to-front caps; another one was filmed by a journalist joking to a member of his conservative party that one Arab is fine, but that problems come when there are several (a court eventually condemned him for that remark, but he was not forced to resign). All this caused a public outcry, and the debate on “national identity” was a failure. The government buried it, but turned its attention, almost immediately, to the debate over the burkha.

Clearly, such debates reveal an inability to address the financial crisis, the rising unemployment rate and widening inequalities. To brandish the threat of Islam and emphasize cleavages between “real” French and the “others” works to obscure socio-economic divisions, and helps fuel the anger of white working class people towards immigrants. But this is not only about diversion. This debate and its continuation through the discussion of the burkha are also part of an ideological attempt to promote a “French identity” which works, at the same time, to create and institutionalize a category of “others”. Sarkozy’s presidency epitomizes this phenomenon because it is the first time that this goal has been so clearly and emphatically embraced. But the obsession with “national identity”, far from being new, appears to be a broader response to the declining cultural, economic and political role of France. References to an eternal set of values provide comforting answers to identity questions. At the same time, what is particular about recent assertions of “French identity” is how Islam has become so crucial to definitions of “the other”. Although they offer a variety of (often contradictory) answers, the titles of countless TV programs and weekly newspapers reveal that everyone agrees that there is one question that needs to be addressed in any discussion of French problems: the “problem of Islam”.