The Genderization of Islamophobia in French Politics
by Maria Alejandra Torres
En route to Paris for a semester abroad, with the airline’s iPad in my lap, I contemplated the film Straight Outta Compton’s relevance in 2016, reviewed French grammar from high school, and savored the surprisingly well-balanced airplane food. Most of all, however, I could not stop imagining myself living in a country I had previously idyllically dreamed about for so long. It was easy for me to romanticize a country I knew so little about. Though I would live in Paris for a brief four months, with the support of my professors, who treated me as a true French resident and helped contextualize the city around me, I would become quickly immersed in French culture. About a few weeks in, I discovered a sad truth: no country is perfect. It was easy for me to condemn the U.S. alone for harsh anti-immigrant, anti-minority rhetoric, but France, also a Western society, has a set of similar issues.
While in the U.S., Black Americans and Mexican/ Central American immigrants are at the receiving end of this negative rhetoric, in France, Muslim and African individuals are the victims. Muslims and Africans, whether immigrants or citizens, are treated as perpetual colonial subjects. Muslim women particularly endure a double alterity. Some Muslim women’s attire (i.e. headscarf: hijab, burqa, etc.) is interpreted as a symbol of this “threatening” double alterity, making women targets of Islamophobia, to the extent that Islamophobia is gendered in French politics. To be sure, I am not slandering France. I have missed my time in Paris everyday since my return, and I yearn to live there again in the future. My objective in writing this piece is for us to recognize that our biases can be detrimental obstacles that block us from seeing the flaws in certain systems. In fact, I am inspired to return to France in an effort to rectify its equally broken system.
On March 15, 2004, the French government, under the Stasi Commission, enacted a law that forbade students from wearing“de tenues et de signes religieux ostensibles à l’école” (ostensible religious signs and garments in school) (Pauline Fréour, “Voile, signes religieux: ce qui est interdit en France,” Le Figaro). The law may have derived from the aftermath of 9/11, as governments worldwide sought ways to lessen the rise of radical Islam. France hoped to decrease the spread of Islam in schools, where children are at an impressionable age, by denying Muslim girls’ ability express their faith. A headscarf on a Muslim girl was not seen as an expression of identity but rather, as an “ostensible religious garment” that aimed to convert others. The journey of self-discovery for Muslim girls became corrupted.
Similar to the U.S., France separates church from state, albeit in a much different way, as the colloquially coined “2004 Headscarf Ban” demonstrates. The French Republic operates on a society in which equality is obtained through public social anonymity—Republican homogeneity— (Bowen, John, “Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves”) such that assimilation, not integration, is the objective. In order for individuals to fit within the narrative of French citizenship, they must conform to a uniform society. In this way, minority subjectivities are privatized in the public sphere. Religion in France is therefore privatized, leading to a laïq state. Laïcité can only be loosely compared to secularism, because it is also a political agenda working in tandem with a citizenry ideology. France’s unique laïcité is argued to date back to the French Revolution and the battle against the social dominion of the Catholic Church, which was closely affiliated with l’Ancien Régime (the Old Regime: Divine Right Absolute Monarchy). Thus, to some extent, state control of organized religion has been rationalized as a socio-political tool to prevent a dark era from reoccurring. To offer a counter thought, could we consider state control of organized religion a covert method of discrimination against a particular demographic and long-standing immigration patterns?
On October 12, 2010, the French government passed a law that forbade people from covering their face in public spaces (“le voile intégrale dans l’espace public”) (Pauline Fréour, “Voile, signes religieux: ce qui est interdit en France,” Le Figaro). More commonly referred to as “the 2010 Burqa Ban,” this law, much like the 2004 law, is deemed to be a direct attack on Muslim women who wear burqas, garments that cover the face entirely, except for the eyes. Burqas on the street were viewed as an excessively direct show of a “dangerous faith.” The burqa-bearing Muslim woman on Champs-Élysées was no longer an innocent shopper but someone forcefully exerting her religion on passers-by. Proponents of the two laws claim that an attack on Muslim women is not the case, instead arguing that these pieces of legislation are applied equally to all French constituents. France’s ongoing fear of Islam would indicate otherwise.
French Muslims hold an exceptional position in the French Republic. Because of France’s colonial history, especially in the Maghreb Region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia)—from where cheap labor was solicited—Muslims in France are still treated as colonial subjects. Indeed, these laws effectively demonstrate the French government’s attempt to regulate the Islamic faith and its followers. Because Islam is perceived as a highly visible religion, the government believes it can be easily regulated.
The global rise of radical Islam fuels the rise in French Islamophobic sentiments. Islam is seen as a social problem that can only be resolved through draconian legislation. As a result, the media, politicians and intellectuals have come together to “resolve” that social problem, at the expense of Muslim women, who are coerced into precariously reconciling their religion with their gender. The media’s sensationalization of the Muslim world conflates foreign radical Islam with the domestic Islam of French constituents. Further, politicians, backed by intellectuals, use harsh political discourse to paint Islam as backwards and incapable of seamlessly integrating into contemporary French society (Cesari, Jocelyne, “Islamophobia in the West: A Comparison Between Europe and the United States”).
The oppression endured by French Muslims have compelled many to more deeply connect with their faith and proudly display their identity. This in turn has created the correlation of Muslims with Islamists, those who are not just worshipers but advocate for the creation of Islamic states, such as Iraq and Syria, home of ISIS (Bowen, John, “Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves”). More headscarves are visible on French streets as women reclaim their identity. Because the entirety of the Islamic faith has been falsely linked to terrorism, and the headscarf is a visible marker of Islam, the French see it as a symbol of terrorism. Women, the wearers of headscarfs, are perceived as Islamist tokens, and bear the brunt of anti-Muslim legislation. The headscarf is not interpreted as a source of religious pride or desire to be closer to Allah. Instead, its ostensiveness is interpreted as radicalization. The headscarf-wearing Muslim woman is not a peaceful Muslim, she is radical, menacing, and conspiring to recruit fanatics. Thus, Islamophobia in France adopts a gendered image, perhaps because it is the easiest image to control.
In early 2016, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, reopened the debate around banning headscarves in universities, using the well-established argument that Islam is incompatible with the Republic’s values (Angelique Chrisafis, “French PM calls for ban on Islamic headscarves at universities”). The 2004 Headscarf Ban aimed to prevent girls from imposing their religion on their impressionable classmates. The 2010 Burqa Ban aimed to uphold Republican homogeneity.
Although France and the U.S. have their legislative differences in dealing with minority subjectivities, it is undeniable that they are comparable in anti-minority discourse. The influence of biased public opinion on draconian legislation is a universal phenomenon. Refusing to acknowledge that the 2004 and 2010 laws personally affect Muslim women is equivalent to denying that police brutality and selective targeting affect the lives of American Blacks and Latinx. These are realities. Just like the treatment of Blacks and Latinx represents a country’s prejudice that an entire racial group is dangerous, the treatment of Muslim women represents a country’s prejudice that an entire religion is dangerous. Muslim women in France are exploited to combat the nation’s fear of something it does not allow itself to better understand nor accept.