Race/Class/Gender: French secularism and Whiteness

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The recent image out of France that show policemen surrounding a woman who is removing her veil have struck many people because of how overtly Islamophobic they are. France – a country that constructs itself as being open and secular – recently imposed a fine on women who wear a ‘burqini’ at the beach. This announcement was controversial, and seeing images of this fine in action is bringing even more attention to the new rule.

What struck me about this image and this story in general is the clear ways in which different structures are intersecting with one another in order to produce this one moment in time. I have seen some of the commentaries talk about how this demonstrates yet another instance of patriarchy and sexism: men telling women what they can and cannot wear. My own reaction was to affirm this – it does seem to be a common denominator when it comes to the different types of violence faced by women across the globe. Women’s bodies are put under the control of patriarchal norms through a variety of mechanisms, from laws to domestic violence to street harassment. The effect of these myriad mechanisms is that women are constantly conscious of what we look like, how we dress, how we take up space (public or private), and how we interact with men. It is a daily reality to know, on some level, that you are never really safe from some type of intrusion – whether it be sexual harassment or severe sexual violence. There are a whole range of ways in which patriarchy – exercised mainly through men but also through women – controls women’s bodies.

But this is not the whole story. This photo and this moment are also a clear instance of a very racialized interaction. We see white French policemen surrounding a woman who appears to be of Arab descent and who is veiled. In Europe today the veil and Muslim identity in general has often been made to represent a ‘cultural’ identity when in fact it is a heavily racialized one. It is not a distinction between “French” and “Muslim” culture – whatever these are – but between white French and Brown/Black not-quite-French. And so we see that alongside patriarchy there is racism as a determining structure. Indeed it is not Brown policemen who are carrying out this act – even though it could have been. This shows that it is not about the race of the actual individuals involved; it could just as easily have been a Brown policeman who fined this woman and stood by and watched her undress (just as it could easily have been a policewoman). What is behind these agents is, again, structural: it is a legal system, a collection of norms and values, an economic system, and a political system. It is these that produce agents, and it is here that we need to locate race and whiteness. This is precisely the myth of secularism: that it is value-free, neutral, that it avoids the subjectivity of religion. And yet we have seen time and time again that secularism in France is white and that it is increasingly being produced through a clear distinction between us and them – white and non-white – French and not-quite-French.

And so the intersections between race and gender are clear – not just any race in France could have produced a law or rule that would fine the wearing of the burqini. And not just any gender in France would have allowed for such a blatant instance of the policing of women’s bodies. These are both racist and sexist mechanisms of rule – and both can be exercised by any race of by any gender, even as they disproportionately impact one race and gender more than others. As I wrote elsewhere:

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s mainstream media in Europe, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims and/or Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive and modern Europe is, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/or as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression). Not only does this create a narrative of women in Europe being ‘free,’ which is far from the case; it simultaneously creates the narrative of women who do not look like European women (whatever that is) or act like European women as backwards/traditional. Once this narrative is constructed, it becomes the lens through which women in non-European cultures are understood.

Other commentaries have focused on capitalism and class as a means of explaining why these types of incidents are becoming more common. Here we see the European economic crisis and a slow down in accumulation as an explanation for why nationalism and the right-wing are gaining ground. And certainly it is important to understand the class dynamics present in this picture: the particular position of Muslims in France’s economic structure; the role France has played in exploiting colonies in Africa as an instance of primitive accumulation; and finally the particular class dynamic within government structures such as the police and the military. Indeed the class position and history of Algerians – for instance – in France is very different from that of other African or Arab migrants to other European countries or to the United States and UK. It is the particular interaction of class and race that lends much-needed context to these types of images, particularly in European countries where migrants (a term applied to most people who are not white, regardless of how many generations have lived in Europe) are often seen as “stealing welfare and not working.” Here the language of productivity has been key to demonizing non-white Europeans – they are seen as lazy and unwilling to work. The trick here is that those who do work and fulfil their duty as active (capitalist) citizen are still not really there yet – not quite white.

I have tried to think through this moment by turning back to the older triad of race/gender/class. I think each structure and the relations it produces in and of itself cannot explain this instance or the heavy baggage behind it. Taken alone they also cannot explain the current articulation(s) of French secularism. Finally, they also do not explain the silence on the part of French and European feminists to what is blatantly an instance of male control over female bodies. But together we see that they condition one another and clearly produce this moment through their intersections.

We have seen the intersection of these structures over time and through history. Indeed this image brings back other images from decades ago; images of Algerian women in Algeria being forced to unveil by the French, for instance. It is an old story. A story so old that it is deeply ingrained in the fabric of French society and culture. Secularism in France is white and founded on a binary between white and non-white (civilized and uncivilized as they used to say back in the day), and once we accept that, images such as these should no longer be that surprising.

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8 thoughts on “Race/Class/Gender: French secularism and Whiteness

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  2. Brian

    I’m French, and even though I don’t like veils and burqinis, I feel sorry for Muslims.
    Most of those who agree with what the French system (justice, police, media…) does to this woman hide behind feminism and secularism, when in fact it’s just racism. And I feel sorry because some of those people are very close to me and I thought they were kind of immunized against racism.

    Since France is under heavy neocons influence (since President Sarkozy the Dwarf and now President Pudding Hollande) and since our government decided to follow the neocons agenda in the Middle East (Libya, Syria…), there has been an insidious but powerful propaganda against Islam and Muslims. There is a need to justify all these wars where “our” enemy is Muslim, therefore people must hate Muslims at a domestic level. The neocons really have a heavy hand over French institutions and media and it’s scary, because it works.

    If you are Muslim and you read that, be aware that we are many not to agree with what is happening to Muslims right now in France. Even feminist NGOs who, these last 15 years, supported new laws banishing the veil from public space suddenly realize now it went too far. Let’s hope this unexpected resistance will have a positive effect.

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  6. I’m Spanish, and here we have some of these problems too, the only difference is that we have not banned this type of actions yet. But lots of people approve this kind of rules arguing that “they have to adapt to our culture” as if catholic Spanish culture was better. Here, the problems are very similar. Migrants are more likely to be out of place in the economic system and the idea that they come here to steal our jobs and then they keep on stealing in the streets is very extended in some social classes. We have to work on education, and teach people to be tolerant with others regardless of their culture or origin.

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