Judith Ezekiel. Feminist Studies. Volume 32, Issue 2. Summer 2006.
In February 2004, French legislators overwhelmingly approved a law banning conspicuous signs of religion in public schools. Although Jewish yarmulkes and “excessively large” crucifixes are also mentioned, it clearly targets the hijab. Called a “scarf (foulard) by opponents to the ban and a “veil” by its supporters, it is neither; what the wearers call the hijab covers hair and neck, leaving the face tightly framed. This ban was the culmination of a long and intense debate including a five-month investigation by the nonpartisan “Stasi Commission” appointed by President Jacques Chirac in July 2003.
The law went into effect in the autumn of 2004. In its first year, only forty-eight girls and three Sikh boys were expelled, but the debate has rocked the nation and sent tremors around the world. In August, days before the new school year, events took a surreal turn when two French journalists and their chauffeur were taken hostage in Iraq and held for 124 days; their captors demanded that the French government abolish the ban.
Although the law only mentions elementary and secondary public schools, new incidents crop up regularly. A Paris meter reader was suspended for wearing a headscarf under her hat. Authorities prohibited a fashion show of beveiled women. Schools have forbidden beveiled mothers from volunteering in libraries and for school outings. A university cafeteria refused to serve a beveiled girl. A municipal official stopped a bride’s aunt from signing as a witness when she refused to remove her hijab “for identification.'”
The recent affair is not the first of its kind; two such incidents preceded it, and beveiled girls were suspended from schools in 1989 and 1993. Yet none attained the proportions of the present clash. For instance, whereas the Lexis-Nexis database shows ten articles in the francophone press that discussed the French hijab or “Islamic headscarf in 1989-1990 and about 150 articles in 1993-1994, it jumps to nearly 1,000 in 2003-2004. In January 2006 Google.fr showed about 55,000 hits for these terms.
The unprecedented intensity of this controversy, incomprehensible to most foreigners, stems from the fundamental meanings attributed to this bit of cloth. The controversy reveals and further distills the transformation of French political culture over the last fifteen years. At the core of this culture lies an apparent near-consensus around a resuscitated national identity and model for humanity: that of Ia France laïque et républicaine, the universalist, secular, republican France. The hijab has been constructed as a dire threat to this identity, and the ban as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and also “American-style” multiculturalism. This model has replaced international Utopias, particularly borderless socialism. Despite its universalist pretensions, I contend that it is a nationalized, even nationalistic model that “others” ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, as well as those who quite simply deny its “universality.”
The hijab saga is, bizarrely, my own story. No, I am not a Muslim nor veiled. I am an immigrant of a different ilk: a baby-boomer American; an atheist Jew; a lifelong feminist, radical, and antiracist activist; and an insider-outsider observer of and participant in French politics. Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that veils are symbols and factors in women’s oppression, and I am still that child who refused to utter the “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet the changes in political culture that culminated in the ban have “othered” me as effectively as it has the beveiled girls. The hijab story is, for me, one of lost Utopias, retracting borders, and entrenchment.
I have been trying to write some version of this article for years. Although I am not alone in my critiques, I have not published it in France; indeed, an earlier incarnation of this article appeared as far away as possible, in Australia. First, I knew it would be discounted in France by those I criticize, illegitimated because “foreign,” American, and, even worse, feminist American. After spending almost three decades in France—nearly all my adult life—and despite the fact that my French is fluent, that I have been a “public servant” for twenty-eight years, and that I am (undeportable as) the mother of two French children, I am a failure of the much-touted French integration.
Mostly, however, my silence has been strategic. Although I have opposed many proponents of this republican model on specific issues in the past, on the issue of the ban my opponents have included my closest feminist sisters. Given the unparalleled passion of the debate, voicing my positions would mean that, for many people I deeply respect, I would cross the line into the enemy camp. On the other side, some Greens, human rights, Far Left, and a few feminist activists oppose the ban, but my political home does not lie with them. Although they vocally set themselves apart, their opposition has dovetailed with that of increasingly visible fundamentalists, anti-Americans, and anti-Semites. How can I protest alongside the bearded men keeping watch over the rows of veiled women or in a demonstration including a group that has chanted “death to the Jews” and in which some believe that the story of the Shoah was invented to justify Israeli occupation of Palestine?
The hijab story lies at the intersection of the myriad developments since 1989 that have resuscitated and recentralized a nationalist republican model: the discrediting of international Utopias and of revolution, the rise of the neofascist Right, increased anti-Americanism, the rejection of multiculturalism, and the fragmentation and recomposition of political blocs. The veiled girls singularly embody these historical processes, and their story contextualizes the birth of a new “woman of color” feminism.
From Internationalism To National Universalism
When I first arrived in France in 1975, political models were varied and conflicting, but most radicals shared a vision with international scope incorporating some form of borderless socialism. No nation-state was immune to criticism; my condemnation of the United States was no less vigorous than my friends’ denunciations of France. I felt welcomed into the French part of an international community.
By the late 1980s, as France entered its second term of Mitterrandiste socialism, that international viewpoint had eroded to the point of near invisibility. A generation of nouveaux philosophes had argued that the Gulag, the Stalinist horrors, showed that all forms of socialism were not just bankrupt, but de facto evils. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, many took this not just as the symbolic end to Soviet communism but more broadly as vindication of anticommunist, antisocialist, or at least antirevolutionary positions. These “new philosophers,” after dissociating themselves from the Left for years, later reclaimed the label after the said Left grew closer to their positions, notably a renovated, moralistic humanitarianism. They and other “public intellectuals” became general practitioners of mass media political philosophy, with near-rock-star status, called upon to pontificate on everything from French foreign policy to tsunamis, the homeless, and the hijab.
Nineteen eighty-nine also marked the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The very nature of the Revolution came under scrutiny. Some argued that, as Stalinism was inherent to communism, the Terror and totalitarianism were inherent to the French Revolution. In a counter-offensive, many public intellectuals resurrected a different Revolutionary model, Ia France laïque et républicaine. This secular and republican model began filling the void left by international socialism. My shared Franco-American, international Utopias began giving way to a national model.
Not all got on the bandwagon. For a short period in the early Mitterrand years, the term “democracy” came back into vogue. It carried with it the issues of minority rights and hence of multiculturalism. A brief window opened to the emergent movement of first-generation French-born children of Maghrebi (North African), sub-Saharan African, and other immigrants. Aha, I gloated, the French would finally be confronted, not just with anticolonial uprisings far from home but with a mass antiracist social movement on the mainland. Having experienced the rise of the civil rights and Black Power movements in the United States, I savored the times, watching the rising anger and self-confidence of a generation. Like that day on the subway with my friend, daughter of Vietnamese parents: when racists told her to “go home,” she stared them straight in the eyes, amusement on her lips, but steel in her voice. “Just where I’m going,” she said, “Ivry-sur-Seine, end of the line.” No longer shackled by the pressures of gratitude to the host country, fragile legal status, and gaps in cultural literacy of their mostly poor and working-class parents, French-born children of immigrants began forging new identities and demands. In 1983, a group inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement organized the “March for Equality and against Racism,” dubbed the Marche des Beurs (“Beurs” is slang for “Arabs”). It drew some 100,000 people and gave birth to several groups, the most famous being 505 Racisme, which emerged from the orbit of the Socialist Party, and the small but significant Nonas Beurs (slang for Arab women).
Yet the multicultural experiment, although never actually opposed to the republican ideal, proved to be a brief interlude. As the Stasi report reminds us, “Our political philosophy was founded on the defense of a single, unified social body. The concern with oneness prevails over all expression of difference, perceived as a threat.” In the French Revolutionary stance, “the people”—like the sovereign before them—had to be indivisible; separating out any group endangers this conception of the French Republic. The classic example given is the Revolutionary attribution of citizenship to Jews: full rights as individuals but none “as a nation,” Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre declared in 1789. The fear of “nations within a nation” would make sense at the time of the Revolution when the memory of regions patched together and cemented into one nation by extreme, iron-fisted centralization was still fresh. Today, French micronationalist demands, from Corsica to the Basque country, ranging from separate languages to territorial secession evoke this history. Opposing today’s ethnic communities with the rhetoric reserved for “nations” is no innocent mistake.
In public discourse, all multiculturalism was reduced to “identity politics” and more recently to a dreaded “communitarianism” (the said “communities,” although rarely defined, are obviously “other” to the white male universal). Both have been discredited alternately as “American” and even as a reflection of the fragmentation and “tribalism” in postSoviet Eastern and Central Europe. In this construction, republicans’ opposition to multiculturalism can tolerate no compromise. Even the slightest infraction represents a dire threat. For example, some girls tried trading in their hijabs for other headcoverings, either by order of Muslim authorities or of their own volition, adopting the then-fashionable bandanas that leave neck and ears exposed. Naively, I assumed this would be interpreted as a show of good will and a compromise between these girls and the French state. To the contrary, the education minister issued instructions to repress this practice. Today, although my daughter will never be stopped from wearing her bandanas to school, if a Muslim girl does so repeatedly, she may be expelled. One television report showed an enraged teacher reprimanding a Black girl (Muslim, we assume) for wearing a thick headband because it covered the roots of her hair!
Them and Us: The Far Right Sets the Tone
Concomitantly, opposition to diversity from the Far Right, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, has also provided crucial context to the hijab story. Although anti-Semitism has remained central to the Far Right’s repertoire (and takes on particularly sinister meaning in the country of Vichy), its most visible face is anti-“immigrant” racist discourse and practice. For most French people, “the immigrant” and their French-born children are racialized, with roots in North and sub-Saharan Africa. When I refer to myself as an immigrant, my French interlocutors are disconcerted; one recently painstakingly explained to me that neither I nor my children were “immigrants,” because we are white and middle class.
After a few local victories in the early 1980s, a change in the voting system allowed the National Front, with a showing of almost 12 percent, to win seats in the 1986 National Assembly elections. Since then, between 10 to 17 percent of French voters have cast their ballots for the National Front alone and millions more for candidates who could arguably be called Far Right. Then, in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, with votes split among sixteen candidates, Le Pen came in second with almost 5 million votes, more than Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and only 3 percentage points behind right-wing Jacques Chirac. A shocked Left watched a run-off between the Right and the Far Right. Today, about 21 percent of the population admits to having voted for the National Front at least once and as many as one-third agree with some of its ideas.
National Front discourse has shifted from notions of white racial superiority to arguments of “incompatibility” among races or “cultures.” Since the mid-1980s, this discourse has spread far beyond the limits of that party, to the Center Right, but also into the Left. The Socialist party, including members of the then-administration, began speaking of the “problem” of immigration and “thresholds of tolerance,” as well as associating (male) immigrants and their descendants with violence and a myriad of social ills.
The potential threat posed by difference is reflected in how racism and discrimination have been framed. For years, when I used the term “racism,” well-meaning friends corrected me: “You mean ‘xenophobia.'” Most of them, like my students today, “explain” to me that the fear of “the foreign” is an elemental constituent of all humans. (This always left me perplexed, as a member of a large family of wandering Jews in which the “foreign” was alluring and sameness boring.) They continue: this natural impulse must be curbed through societal intervention, principally among children and through the educational system, the ultimate republican institution. (As I write, my daughter is studying this view as a part of the mandatory national educational program in junior high school.) At the same time, there is a widespread, relatively sophisticated understanding that the nineteenth-century scientific construction of “races” is a fiction. Virtually all students, from my daughter on up, rightly know that the only real “race” is the human race.
The social deconstruction and psychological approaches come together in extreme race blindness even among progressives in French society. On the one hand, reducing racism to xenophobia places it on a psychoanalytic, thus individual, level. It contributes to the implicit, yet overwhelming consensus that (understandable, potentially symmetrical) attitudes, not institutions, are the problem. On the other hand, because most French people know that races do not exist and correctly understand that any attempt to measure them actually creates the categories, all racial categorization becomes taboo. French law, recently reaffirmed, actually forbids collecting data by race or ethnicity; only country of birth is allowed. Racism becomes difficult or impossible to measure and thus invisible. Opposition to racial categorization has gone so far as to threaten antidiscrimination law. In November 2004, Socialist National Assembly delegates introduced an amendment that would remove the mention of the “shocking” and “dangerous” term “race” from the French Constitution, a philosophically coherent but politically dangerous position. The passage in question is that which guarantees equality for all citizens “without distinction of origin, race, or religion.”
Nearly always, the reduction of racism to xenophobia posits the immigrant as foreign and the French as white and (usually lapsed) Catholic: As the poster for a new museum on immigration proclaims, “Their history is our history.” However, to become part of “our history,” “they” must leave their separate stories at the doors of the Republic. When it became clear that members of certain minorities were not doing so, several explanatory narratives surfaced Left and Right. One is: “North African immigration is too recent-it just takes time (see how well the Portuguese have ‘integrated’).” This narrative runs up against a historical detail: although Tunisia and Morocco were protectorates of France, Algeria was, by 1848, one of the country’s départements-that is, like the Dordogne or the Gironde, supposedly an integral part of the French nation. Even if only a handful of Algerian Muslims benefited from full citizenship, Algerians were thus French long before most southern and eastern European immigrants. The second argument, an example of the absorption of Far Right discourse, is that “integrating” Poles and Italians was no problem because they were from similar, that is, Catholic, cultures. Islam, the argument goes, prevents assimilation. Even discounting Algeria, it is inaccurate to say that France has been homogeneously Christian, let alone Catholic. Jews lived in France at the inception of the Revolution; indeed French republicans brag of being the first to grant citizenship to Jews (overlooking that this occurred earlier in the United States). Conceptualizing secularism as incompatible with an entire religion and republican “integration” as dependent on being of the same culture is borderline oxymoronic.
Interestingly, discussions of poverty and of inequality in general have also fit into a similar paradigm: for nearly a decade, both terms have been replaced by the notion of “exclusion.” The solution is thus incorporation into an established, scarcely-remodeled French society (the term assimilation is shunned, but it appears in dictionary definitions of intégration). Although “the excluded” are not necessarily racialized, this notion posits a core society into which outsiders must enter, with help (for the Left) or without (for the Right).
French Identity and “America”
Several days after the hijab ban was approved, I attended a large public meeting in the poor housing projects of Toulouse where I heard a “women of color” feminist group speak in favor of the ban. But then, a white French Muslim convert, seated in a row of veiled women, compared the ban to the Jews’ yellow star in Nazi-occupied France. Another veiled woman argued that France was not secular—it was “godless.” Behind me, a row of misogynous young men, consulting with their bearded leader, heckled the feminists mercilessly. When I tried to quiet them, their reaction made me worry for my safety. One stood up and waved a paper, saying, I have here in my hand a document proving that, in America, a veiled woman became valedictorian of an important university. If in the United States, a woman wearing the hijab can succeed, why not in France? That night, I turned on the news. Talking heads were discussing “positive discrimination” (the poor French translation for affirmative action), championed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing minister of the interior and probable candidate in the next presidential elections, called the “French Bush” by some. Speaking for the other side, “experts” from the Left and ethnic minorities were condemning these measures as “American-style communitarianism.” (This American model, constructed around a small number of oft-repeated anecdotes, is a part of an unshakable stock of French “knowledge” and is usually accompanied by the ominous warning “… and we know where that got them.”) For an American, what a topsy-turvy world: Fundamentalists invoking American multiculturalism to oppose feminism? Progressives supporting a dress code? The Right supporting affirmative action and the Left and minorities opposing it?
Although the French Republic does not pretend to be a new Utopia, it unquestionably defines itself in opposition and as an antidote to a dystopian “America.” For Jacques Chirac, who portrays himself as Charles de Gaulle reincarnate, tapping into this renewed anti-Americanism and the hijab controversy has been a useful tool. When, in defiance to all that is American, Chirac refused to back the United States in Iraq, he might have appeared “soft on Islam,” a dangerous position for any politician intent on courting the Far Right vote. Fighting the hijab offered him a domestic alternative to the war (in this respect, the Iraqi captors of the French hostages were not entirely wrong when they accused France of “waging war [emphasis added] on the Islamic veil”). Like the abortion issue in America, the hijab has thus provided a wedge to rend political blocs and recompose alliances. Right-wing Chirac, elected by the Left in the run-off election against neofascist Le Pen, could thus present himself as spanning political divisions. With his opposition to the war in Iraq and support of the hijab ban, he gained more-or-less grudging respect from the republican Left. At the same time, he has assuaged anti-immigrant racism by being “tough on Islam.” (In the meantime, his administration continues furiously privatizing industry, cutting social welfare, and generally following the same unjust domestic policies as those of George W. Bush, including those that hit women disproportionately.)
Secularism in a Christian Culture
The more my peers proclaim France to be the world leader in secularism, the more I perceive the cracks in the wall between church and state. Religions, including the clergy’s salaries, are state-funded in Alsace and Moselle. The state heavily subsidizes private schools, nearly all Catholic. Workers and students benefit from numerous Christian holidays to the exclusion of all others (including the Jewish sabbath, because most children have school on Saturday morning to compensate for the weekday off originally reserved for their Christian education). Thirty years ago, most people I knew shared my disapprobation of these violations of secularism. Today, with the notable exception of a few ecumenical secularists, such as those from the feminist group Prochoix, such contradictions are now brushed off as merely quibbling over details. My criticisms, essentialized as Jewish and American, are exasperating.
Having children has made me more prickly, such as when my daughter’s ever-so-hip alternative school held a Christmas play on the first night of Chanukah. Or when my state-run university, after shutting down following an explosion, held its first university-wide meeting on Yom Kippur. In both cases, my timid comments provoked wrath: “Of course you can hold a meeting on a Jewish holiday, because France is secular.” “And what of the Christmas trees in school?” I ask, “and of my university’s yearly Christmas party recently held during Chanukah and days after A’id-el-Fitr?” Answer: “Christmas is secular and Christmas trees come from pagan ritual.” Or even: “… but we must respect French national culture.” seeing my anger, the university president responded, heavy with innuendo: “You’re of the Hebrew faith, aren’t you?” Usually, people pull rank, reminding me that I am an outsider: “French Jews and Muslims like celebrating Christmas.” I had even started to believe them until the hijab story stirred up memories among students and friends who told me in confidence how they had pressured their reticent Muslim parents to partake in this “secular” holiday.
Despite an apparent consensus, struggles over the place of the Church in affairs of education are ever-so-French and ongoing. One need not go back to the anticlerical violence of Revolutionary France or to the struggles that led to the 1905 law on the separation of church and state. In the early 1980s, when François Mitterrand and his education minister tried to reorganize the educational system into a unified, public, secular system, the Catholic Church orchestrated one of the largest protests since May 1968, bringing out over a million of its faithful. It brought down the prime minister and made Mitterrand fight for his political life. The Socialists remained in power but never again attempted to extract Catholicism from the school system. This incident, the defeat and capitulation of secularism, has vanished from contemporary narratives of France as an exemplary secular state.
From the Revolution to the 1980s, secularism was seen as the bulwark against the hierarchical, reactionary, and powerful Catholic Church but not as the sole progressive force in society. Today, with the loss of socialist and international Utopias, we are left in a binary of religion versus secularism, the latter becoming a freestanding, overarching political ideology. The original opponent, Catholicism, has been replaced by Islam.
The Schools and National Consensus
It is no coincidence that the site of the hijab controversy has been the public schools, represented virtually unquestioned as the exemplary secular republican institution. Schools “in our Republic,” writes the head of a principals’ union, are “liberating” and “emancipating.” Public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut went further in legislative hearings, calling school “temples of laïcité … And you remove your headcovering in this temple,” Finkielkraut declared, “precisely to open yourself to the great works of culture, the works that make humanity. If the teacher is the representative of the poets, the artists, and culture, nothing should come between the teacher’s representation and the students’ reception.” The headscarf does just that, he claims. Even most opponents to the ban remain within this paradigm, arguing that expelling veiled girls deprives them of the benefits of republican schooling, lauded as a secularizing and liberatory process.
The schools continue to be vested with the creation of social cohesion. One year after the Stasi report, a parliamentary committee made up of eighteen white men and two white women, submitted its “findings” on juvenile delinquency to the prime minister. The transparency of the report’s conception of the schools as a form of social control is breath-taking. It urges the government to “restore teachers’ authority over students and their parents” in order to address the root cause of the problem: bilingualism. Mothers of young children, it says, must speak French exclusively in the home, avoiding unspecified “other” languages (no one would doubt that Arabic and African languages are targeted). The said mothers, the report suggests, may be too weak to stand up against their husbands-exoticized, ignorant patriarchs-who supposedly insist upon speaking patois. In this case, the child’s teacher (and note that public school starts at age three, and sometimes even two) must report the families to the authorities and the educational system will appoint an agent to oversee follow-up, coordinating with social workers, psychologists, and speech therapists.
From National Feminism to “Women of Color” Feminism
In the 2004-2005 school year, forty-eight girls were expelled from French public schools. Far more serious than the plight of these individuals is how they, and an extended group of “Arab women,” are being denied agency. Neither helpless victims, nor empowered agents, these girls are among the many negotiating daily in a country infused with interlocking racism and sexism. Many live in families and neighborhoods searching for balance as cultural and/or religious Muslims and immigrants in a country “of Christian culture.” The jury is still out, but it seems that their political, social, and religious itineraries vary. Some wear the hijab, others a scarf; some are forced to cover their heads by fathers and brothers, others do so in opposition to their family; some (mistakenly) think the hijab will provide protection from the sexist gaze and violence in their neighborhoods, others piously adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. Perhaps most importantly, all are sisters, mothers, cousins, and friends of other, unveiled women, for whom they are not the exotic, foreign objects most outsiders see in common representations.
Although the hijab story has mostly been told in gender-blind terms, women’s oppression and emancipation have also been an ongoing thread in pro-ban discourse. Much of this discourse has come from public figures who have never distinguished themselves for their feminism. They depict the Republic as not just the potential but the actual defender of (supposedly established) gender equality. Feminism has been nationalized twofold, both as French and as inherent to the Republic. From the (mostly male) politicians to the educators, the journalists, the public intellectuals, and scholars, had we in the women’s movement had but a fraction of the support and coverage that they have lent to the hijab story, France would be a feminist paradise. To the contrary, the period I scrutinize can be characterized as antifeminist.” Most of this “feminist” discourse is what I have called “National Feminism,” akin to Laura Bush and Lynn Cheney’s sudden concern with Afghan and Iraqi women and as close to feminism as National Socialism was to socialism.
However, not all those evoking feminism are cynics. Many longtime, committed feminist activists and scholars have engaged in the debate; most support the ban with a vengeance. Longtime feminist Anne Zelensky (founder, with the patronage of Simone de Beauvoir, of the Ligue du Droit des Femmes) demands that, if any women are harassed for not wearing veils, the State should extend the ban even to the streets.” Another statement, signed by feminist lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel, nuclear physicist and longtime feminist Annie Sugier, and Sandrine Godeffroy-Durand for La Ligue du Droit Internationale des Femmes, proclaims that the French hijab is “stained with the blood” of all the women oppressed and murdered in the Muslim world for not covering themselves.” Understandably, many longtime feminists bitterly remember the French Left’s blindness to the misogyny of the Iranian Revolution: a 1979 delegation of French feminists, which traveled to Iran to observe the new government and to meet with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was the first to sound the alarm, based in part on its analysis of the chador as indicative of trouble to come. Upon return, feminists encountered cultural relativist justifications at best; at worst, they were quite simply ignored. Yet the secularists do not distinguish between the millions of women worldwide forced to cover themselves in totalitarian regimes and the French beveiled girls, living in an imperfect democracy.
On the other side, longtime feminist Christine Delphy (founder, with the patronage of Simone de Beauvoir, of the journal Questions Féministes) has become the feminist figurehead for the group organized against the hijab ban, Une Ecole pour Tous et pour Toutes (School for All, Boys and Girls), whose founding members, according to Prochoix editor Caroline Fourest, include fundamentalists and anti-Semites.” In her antiracist zeal, Delphy has joined forces with hijab groups and has appeared in forums with charismatic Islamic leader Tariq Ramadan, proponent of a mere “moratorium,” not ban, on stoning women. Delphy participated in the 2004 London European Social Forum session called “The Hijab, a Woman’s Right to Choose.” I shudder at how pro-hijab groups have hijacked the rhetoric of the abortion rights movement. Delphy’s ambiguous proposal for “a feminism, not against, but with Islam” has been lauded on fundamentalist Web sites worldwide.” At a major conference of Marxist scholars, after I presented a historical account of the diverse relationships the women’s movement has entertained with religious institutions and beliefs, I pushed Delphy to clarify her statement. She-who has published my writings on anti-Americanism-neutralized me with a supposedly humorous comment about my question being “American.”
There is another feminist arena that is neither National Feminism nor that of the war-torn longtime feminists, a feminism that is emerging among the daughters of Maghrebi immigrants and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of sub-Saharan African and Caribbean background, which I will call, for lack of a better word, a “women of color” feminism (the activists themselves reject this term but have not yet settled upon an alternative). I have encountered this new feminism increasingly over the last decade, among women’s studies students, in demonstrations, and in community organizations.
In recent years, when government and media directed their spotlights on the suburban housing projects where poor and working-class immigrants and their children live, they concentrated on the so-called kaïds, the male youth depicted as both victims of the “communitarian” ghettos and purveyors of violence and fundamentalism. Community members, from fundamentalists to feminists, decried the demonization of these boys. Feminists exposed how governmental practices reinforce boys’ machismo and girls’ domesticity, such as a government-sponsored mentoring program in which the male workers interact with and encourage neighborhood boys to occupy public spaces, while the female mentors are sent into the private, domestic sphere.” For years, women and girls in the projects faded into the background, rendered invisible or portrayed as passive victims of their men. Today, the screen that hid these women has been cracked, ironically by the hijab debate but also by this new feminism.
Yet “women of color” groups have existed for decades, although strikingly invisible in the historical record. Most, however, such as le Réseau pour l’autonomie des femmes immigrées et réfugiées (Network for the Autonomy of Immigrant and Refugee Women), les sans papières (the undocumented), and small neighborhood groups scattered around the country (including several where I teach, in Toulouse) have mobilized first-generation immigrants and refugees, and not all have adopted the label “feminist.” Only a few small groups, such as the Nanas Beurs and the lesbians of color Groupe du 6 Novembre, brought together French-born minority women and girls.
As the millennium began, new groups were forming, the most famous created by women from the antiracist group 505 Racisme and its network of community centers. They organized meetings around the country, followed by a national congress in January 2002. Two months later, they issued a “National Call to Women from the ‘Neighborhoods’: Neither Whores nor Subjugated!” since signed, they claim, by about 65,000 people. It demanded women’s freedom from the machismo of the men in the housing projects and from the society that shut them in ghettos and that spoke in their names, and declared that women’s emancipation was inseparable from the fight against racism and “exclusion.”
In October 2002, in a Paris suburb, seventeen-year-old Sohane Benziane was brutally murdered-doused with gasoline and burned alive-for having stood up to a local hoodlum; the new group transformed her story into a political campaign. From February 1 to March 8, 2003, eight activists “marched” around France to protest conditions in the ghettos and demand equality, meeting with local groups in city after city. The march culminated in a meeting with the prime minister and participation in a thirtythousand-strong International Women’s Day demonstration. In April 2003, the organizers officially founded NPNS (Ni Putes, Ni Soumises/Neither Whores nor Subjugated) and subsequently spawned committees in various cities.
For the following Bastille Day, the group initiated an exhibit, which fully covered the monumental neoclassical pillars of the National Assembly building, of sexy ethnic Mariannes (the icon of France, on its stamps and currency, previously incarnated by Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve). While NPNS invokes a métis republic, others, such as the president of the National Assembly, proclaimed it was the women’s way of “showing their loyalty to the French State.” From the start, the group denounced veiling and, after a short period of indecision, rallied behind the government ban and, indeed, has become a showcased supporter of the new republican national ideal.
By 2005, the NPNS issued a manifesto that embraced the label “feminist,” saying that “there is no fight for women’s emancipation other than the struggle against all forms of fundamentalism and obscurantism” and identifying secularism and mixité (gender integration) as the two pillars of feminism (a historical inaccuracy because neither have been central to the French second Wave movement, particularly not mixité, which means both ending sexual segregation in society, but also rejecting the women-only organizing so central to 1970-1980s feminism). A star-studded cast, from government ministers Right and Left to France’s most famous singers, movie stars, journalists, intellectuals, and longtime feminists, has endorsed NPNS.
Viewed from afar, I initially saw the emergence of NPNS as a historic moment in the birth of a new feminism. I rapidly learned, however, that many, perhaps most, feminist and community activists from the projects regard the group with distrust and anger. They see NPNS as top-down, pawns of the media and politicians, and “in the pocket” of the Socialist party. They predict that the group’s president Fadela Amara, as did 505 Racism’s male leaders, will use NPNS as a springboard for her own political career, equated with instrumentalizing the movement. Many feel that focusing solely on male violence within their communities, without sufficient contextualization, plays into racism and vilifies “Arab” men. Preliminary research also suggests that at least several local committees are led by white, middle-class women, not the daughters of workingclass African and Maghrebi immigrants that made the group so potentially innovative.
Yet, from a social movement perspective, irrespective of the specifics of this story, I suggest that the idea of NPNS resonated with thousands of women throughout France, particularly young women of color who had not been touched by other groups of older, first-generation immigrants or by the overwhelmingly white feminist groups. The thousands of minority women who connected with the march, who swelled the ranks of the 2003 International Women’s Day demonstration, are only a fraction of those whose consciousness is shifting. If nothing else, NPNS has blown the lid off the box.
A new generation of feminists, acutely aware of the danger of stigmatizing their communities, are breaking the silence nevertheless, denouncing the multiple sources of their oppression that include racism, economic injustice, sexism, and violence—from within and without their neighborhoods. Neither sexy Mariannes proclaiming their loyalty to France nor the alienated victims of fundamentalist preachers, they are speaking in different voices. Whereas many older feminists born in Arab or Muslim countries, where they courageously fought veiling, have actively supported the ban, these younger feminists more commonly oppose both the veil and the law banning the veil; many supported a recent petition that denounced the ban while defending the separation of church and state.
These new feminists appear to be multilevel activists struggling to create antiracist feminism within and without neighborhoods, schools, universities, organizations, progressive parties, and in a few cases, via autonomous groups. In addition to NPNS and its small regional committees, other small groups have appeared, some more or less openly in opposition to NPNS and the ban, such as the Blédardes in Paris and the Scumalines in Strasbourg. Recently, feminists have split from the Motivé-e-s, a small but important political organization cofounded by the iconic radical rock band Zebda, with roots in the projects and minority communities. The Utopian experiment, one dissident explained to me, was sabotaged when male leaders, including their Franco-Maghrebi “brothers,” lost sight of their commitment to participatory democracy and to fighting sexism. The origins of the split, she says, go back to the time when the group’s antisexist caucus suggested running two women of color for the 2002 legislative elections, but the male leader and a hand-picked female ally were chosen instead. The two women of color remember being told that they were no longer authentic, no doubt disqualified and “whitened” by being aggressively feminist and challenging the men’s monopoly as voices of the projects. These dissidents are meeting to share their analyses and to write about the experience.” New publications and initiatives are also emerging from academe, such as the Toulouse Race et Genre group, which I cofounded in 2003 with women of color activists and scholars.
In January 2005, a manifesto appeared that marked a transformation in the debate on race and immigration. “We are the Indigènes of the Republic,” it proclaimed (indigène meaning “native” but also referring to the code de l’indigénat that deprived French colonial subjects of most civil and human rights). The manifesto denounced past and present French colonialism, the domestic “indigenization” of postcolonial immigrants and their children, and declared its solidarity with all anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world. It called the hijab ban racist, sexist, and colonialist. One poignant passage, which resonated particularly with Franco-Maghrebi and African youth, denounces how their immigrant parents have been vilified for supposed parental irresponsibility, when, it says, “we know of their sacrifices, their efforts, and the suffering they have endured.”
Many intellectuals and scholars of colonialism denounced the manifesto’s logic as sloppy and inaccurate. Feminist secularists exposed fundamentalist and anti-Semitic ties of some of the initial sponsors and pointed out the manifesto’s weakness on gender. (Indeed, the female leader of the Indigènes organization, while calling herself a “radical feminist,” later proclaimed that Arab women could only be liberated by giving proof of loyalty to their men and, she said, the veil was one example of such proof.”) Nevertheless, thousands rushed to sign, including many women and feminists of color. The manifesto has inspired several small collectives around the country and has contributed to popularizing the term “postcolonial” and forcing recognition of the specificity of immigration from the former colonies. More importantly, it has intermeshed with other developments, such as Blacks’ efforts to organize and to have officially recognized a revisionary history, from the 2001 law declaring slavery to be a crime against humanity, introduced by Christiane Taubira, former presidential candidate and the sole Black woman in the French National Assembly; to the refusal of Martinicans, including founding father of the négritude movement and longtime mayor of Fort-de-France, Aimé Césaire, to meet with Nicolas Sarkozy after Sarkozy, in 2005, called rioters “rabble”; to the December 2005 creation of a federation of about sixty Black organizations (Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires/Représentative Council of Black Organizations) that has declared its opposition not just to racism, but, contrary to the Indigènes group, also to anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism.
Following the publicizing of the manifesto, however, and as if on cue (providing evidence of continuing neocolonialist policy), the National Assembly, on February 23, 2005, adopted a law that requires schools to teach about “the positive role” of French colonialism, angering not only postcolonial immigrants but also heads of state of former colonies. Shifting consciousness and growing anger at the republican dream deferred culminated in the largest civil disorder France has known since the May 1968 students’ and workers’ uprising. In late October 2005, a revolt errupted in a Paris suburb when three teenagers, sons of African, Maghrebi, and Kurdish parents, were electrocuted, two fatally, after hiding in an electric substation to escape a police descent on their neighborhood. Government attempts to lay blame on the boys, Sarkozy’s infamous slurs, and the explosion of a tear gas grenade in a mosque enflamed the situation. By the end of November, in hundreds of towns, some ten thousand cars had burned, hundreds of buildings had been damaged, and nearly five thousand people had been taken in for questioning. The government exhumed a 1955 colonial state-of-emergency law designed to quash the Algerian independence movement, remembered bitterly by some of the rioters’ parents and grandparents and never since used in mainland France. Although various people tried to implicate Islam, drug lords, and other criminal elements, a report leaked from the French secret police described the riots as a “popular revolt” caused by sentiments of young people from the “neglected projects” who “feel that they are handicapped by poverty, the color of their skins and their names.”
Although rioters were represented as exclusively male, women have been held responsible. Single and working mothers were singled out as culprits: at least one, a Pakistani single mother of four, was taken into custody by the police after her son was apprehended, and was sentenced to parenting classes. The blogosphere showed an outbreak of rage against veiled girls. Finally, several right-wing politicians began blaming polygamy. Girls from the projects did not set themselves apart from the rioters; a handful joined in and others expressed regret for not having had the nerve to join in. In December, a predominantly female group calling itself “The Rabble of France,” self-identified as the “‘tanned,’ black, and Asian” children of “postcolonial immigrants,” carried out a zap action, posting signs such as “To the memory of the rabble’s grandparents, who fought for France in every war.”
As this article has explained, alongside the icon of the passive veiled woman, a new women of color feminism is emerging. Yet, even setting aside constraints due to economic and social injustice and everyday sexism from within and without their communities, the hijab story reveals how their space is tightly circumscribed psychologically, culturally, and politically. On the one hand, fundamentalists are eager to exploit any seemingly sympathetic statements, and in various manifestos and organizations, these feminists find themselves in unsavory company. On the other hand lies the suffocating French national model. Horia Kebabza, director of a pathbreaking project on youth and gender relations in the Toulouse housing projects, links her own feminist consciousness to the realization of how a supposed “universalism” excluded her family and community, impacting even more on the women than on the men. Viewed from the ground, the model “is extremely violent,” she says. “As [minority] women become aware that the republican model is one of a forced march toward assimilation, they begin, more or less explicitly, demanding a new model of society that takes [them] into account.”