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Intolerance Towards Veil : Roots in Racism and French Colonialism Essay Sample

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Intolerance Towards Veil : Roots in Racism and French Colonialism Essay Sample

“It is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude. To the colonialist offensive against the veil, the colonized opposes the cult of the veil”1—Frantz Fanon. ” Our attitudes are not racist; they are based in fact. These people are animals, they are not Christians, your blacks are Christian. The Arabs don’t live in real houses but in huts, in holes in the ground; they’re uncivilized, uneducated, unclean. Listen to their music, watch how they dance; they have a natural (or was it unnatural) rhythm all their own. Your blacks were once slaves, these Arabs have no excuse.

This is just how they are; this is the way Koran teaches them to be” 2- Joan Wallach Scott, first encounter with racism in France in 1967, in conversation with French colleagues at the bureau of civil registry. On all accounts of French colonialism and occupation of North Africa, Muslims and Arabs are depicted as inferior people, incapable of assimilating to French national values. Depictions of inferiority range from religious practices, presumed sexual orientations to traditional forms of dress such as the veil or the headscarf. Intolerance towards Muslim stems from deep-seated psychological preoccupation with the “the other” and racial intolerance dating back to French conquest of Algeria in 1830. This section aims to address the historical context through which the present debate surrounding headscarves have arisen.

Since the word “race” has largely disappeared from the French vocabulary, the Arabs are not necessarily referred to as different race, however, their place and position as “indigenes” measures up to the same status on their fundamental difference and inferiority. In the French context, such discrimination, as a social problem, is frequently subsumed in issues of social inequality and immigration, or conflated with xenophobia. In other words, people of color are supposedly discriminated against because they are “immigrants” or feared foreigners, not necessarily because they are African or Asian or “black” 3 Thus, although expressions of bias against Muslims must be viewed in their immediate contexts, they draw on a deep reservoir of racism4 The race discourse is, infact, commonplace and customary in the France, as (despite the fact that the word is extinct from the vocabulary) people are characterized and labelled as, “noir (black), beur (Arab), or blanc(white) and the use of “ethnic roots” (eg. Gaulois) to mark distinction and difference.5 In this context, the self-understandings of Muslim youths (especially veil wearing Muslim girls) signify critical change in a French society clinging to its “national identity” amidst unanticipated and often unwanted social mutations that these young people come to represent.

Ill prepared to embrace them as French, France finds itself facing several pressing social questions, most notably, what will be the effects of stigmatized youths of color’s claims on a social fiction termed a “national identity” in a society that constitutes them as perpetual outsiders or immigrants? And what happens when public institutions attempt to level cultural differences among youths of varying African origins in schools while those differences are amplified outside schools?7 The title alone of Gaston Kelman’s (2003) controversial book mocking identity politics in France speaks volumes: Je suis noir et je n’aime pas le manoic (I’m black and I don’t like yams). The putative markers of “race”-skin colour, hair, features, language varities, and by extension family names, religion and way of being-have long standing social meanings in France, underpinned and enlivened by ideologies and policies acting on them.8 Historian, George Fredrickson defined Racism as, “It is when differences that might otherwise be considered as ethno-cultural are regarded as innate, indelible, and unchangeable that a racist attitude or ideology can be said to exist.”

He further asserts, ” My theory or conception of racism has two components: difference and power. It originates from a mind set that regards ‘them’ and ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable..In all manifestations of racism…what is being denied is the possibility that the racializers and the racialized can coexist in the same society, except perhaps on the basis of domination and subordination.”10 Historically, French conceptions of Muslims fit this discription: Muslims/ Arabs have been marked as a lesser people, incapable of improvement and so impossible to assimilate to French ways of life, in French eyes, the veil has long been a symbol of the irreducible difference and thus the in assimilability of Islam.11 It is critical to emphasize, all the same, that documenting ethnic origins (implying “race”) is considered discriminatory according to the French Constitution, and cutting against those universalist principles inhering in the construct of sifications are viewed through perceptions shaped during the Vichy regime and still conjure up dreaded memories and images of ethnic labelling in France during Nazi era.

And yet anti-racist groups, both statist and independent of the state, continue to show that racialized discrimination manifests itself in the most basic social structures, 13 thus more to the point, being perceived as African or Arab in French society has never carried the same advantages as being perceived as French, which signifies European ancestry and, increasingly “whiteness”. The formation and claiming of a self-representation articulated as French or “French” of “x” origin, by youth of color and immigration become, then, a signpost in France.14.Hence, it is a reflection towards the classification of the veil wearing Muslim girls and woman as distinguished from the francais-francais (French-French). FRENCH COLONIALISM OF NORTH AFRICA

The French colonialism of Algeria (1830), Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1912) was largely perceived and justified as “civilizing mission” to emancipate Muslims from their “savage instincts and ignorant behaviours.” Assimilation to French language and culture were equated with “bringing of republican, secular, universalist values to those who lacked them.”15 Hence, the “civilized colonizers” were bent on assimilating these uncivilized people to the French notions of modernization and enlightenment ideals. The notion of “mission” implied that assimilation was possible-one day Algerians, of whatever background, might become French. But on the other hand and at the same time, the colonial adventure was legitimzed by racist depictions of Arabs (Muslims, North Africans—the designations tended to overlap and merge) which inevitably called into question the very possibility of the civilizing project.16 Islam was taken to be the cause and effect of their inferiority,17 it was Islam that set these people race apart and therefore, their liberation was possible only through their separation from Islam and religious beliefs, but these beliefs tell you something about the propensity of Arabs to decandence.

Here was the paradox of the civilizing mission that persists to this day: the stated goal was to civilize (to assimilate) those who finally could not be civilized. The conflict between France and Islam enunciated at first in military terms —one French general called the followers of Islam “our eternal enemy”—and then in social and cultural terms, was evident in a law of 1919 that extended naturalization only to those Arab men who were willing to relinquish their “indigenous” status, which included following Islam laws.18 Infact, this racialism was further integrated through various studies conducted on Arab culture and Islam. One study that became a model for later ethnographers purported to “tear off the veil which still hides the mores, customs, and ideas” of Arab society.

French learnt about North Africa and their culture through newspapers, books, novels and “French superiority and great condescension”20were scripted therein. For example, in 1913, French schoolchildren could read that “France wants little Arabs to be as educated as little French children. This shows how our France is boutiful and generous to the people she conquered.”21 ALGERIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE AND REPRESENTATION OF MUSLIM WOMEN Nationalist movements of resistance to French rule in Algeria led to systematic warfare in 1954. In the bloody seven-year struggle that ensued, women became an object of attention for both sides, and the veil acquired tremendous political significance. In fact, it was at this time that the veil was first associated with dangerous militancy. It was not September 11, 2001 and the fear of Islamic terrorism that politicized the wearing of the veil; that had already happened during the Algerian War.22 The subjugation of Algeria was often depicted by metaphors of disrobing, unveiling, and penetration.

“The Arabs elude us,” complained General Bugeaud, the administrator of the Algerian territory in the 1840s, “because they conceal their women from our gaze”23 The pleasures and dangers of imperial domination were conflated in statements like these, and when marauding troops defeated native resisters, it is not hard to see why they often celebrated their victory by raping village women.24 The harem (an all female place where men could not be admitted) was imagined both as a place of sensuous indulgence and as a cage in which women were confined by tyrannical men. There were those who equated Arab women with prostitutes and those who envisioned them as slaves to their husbands and families.25Auclert referred to “cloistered women” and to “women buried alive, whose husbands can strangle them with impunity”26 In any case, references were made to the homogeneity of Arab females—they were a type and they were stereotyped.27 Thus Algerian women to be truly French were required to unveil themselves. Getting rid of the veil was a sign of this progress, evident in both the message and the title of the film (The Falling Veil)28made especially by the French Government for American audience.

The film clearly influenced an article in the New York Times in July 1958 called, “The Battle of the Veil”29 While the article asserted the army of modernity and enlightenment (“the French, the rebels, the Moslem youth of both sexes and even many older generation women”)30in a war against the traditionalist and ignorant Muslims, there is more to the Battle of Veil. It was, to be sure, a refusal of French appropriation of the country, a way of insisting on an independent identity for Algerians, in addition, the veil became a useful instrument in the war against the French, permitting the clandestine transport of arms and bombs by militants of both groups.31 Thus according to Fanon, the veil was a way of resisting colonial domination and thus it was particularly important to keep the veil: The veil was worn because tradition demanded strict separation of sexes but also because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria.32 This is why we must watch the parallel progess of this man and this woman, of this couple that brings death to the enemy, life to the Revolution.33The challenge to the Algerian women was both physical (the sheer danger of violent combat) and psychological.

In order to do this, the veil became not so much a sign of religious or cultural affiliation as it did an instrument of subversion. It was the means by which the abjection of colonial subjects could be transformed into a proud and independent national and personal identity.34 As Fanon says, “Removed and reassumed again and again, the veil has been manipulated, transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle.”35The means (the veil) and the end (liberation) get permanently entwined in this moment, despite the FLN’s critique of “traditionalism”36 The veil emerged as a commanding instrument of the Battle, so powerful and potent that French soldiers patrolling the countryside violated women first by forcibly removing their veils and then by raping them.37Aahia Arif Hamdad told of her arrest along with her husband.

As one soldier tore off her veil, another commented on its authenticity: “enough is enough; the game is over”38 She was then beaten and subjected to electric shock as she stood nude, her veil replaced by a hood that prevented her from seeing her torturers.39 One of the frequent complaints about the veil was that it allowed a women to see without being seen. 40“This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer” wrote Fanon. She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself…The European faced with an Algerian woman wants to see”41In a clear act of revenge, the torture scenario reverses the situation: the hood blinds the women while her interrogators get to look at her without limit. Yet another act of revenge came in the last days of the war, as de Gaulle was negotiating the Evian Accords in May, 1962, the OAS abandoned its policy of shooting only at men and fired carefully chosen female targets as well: five veiled women (of whom three were killed) in the capital, Algiers.42 MUSLIM ASSIMILATION IN FRANCE.

The Muslim minority in France, largely a product of the 1960s immigration and the aftermath of the Algerian War of Independence, is the most numerically significant in Europe. Muslims outnumber Protestants and Jews and rank as the country’s second largest religion.43 However, while, in 1870, citizenship was extended to Algerian Jews, though Jews already were considered French nationals in the metropole, the citizenship was not extended to Muslims. In hierarchy of social distinction, Jews ranked below Christian Europeans and “native” French, but above the Muslims( Arab and Berber) who were the real subjects peoples, those with no vote and no right to representation. Berbers, however, were deemed superior to Arabs because it was said that their belief in private property, their commerce and family law, as well as their European looks made them more likely to assimilate to French ways.44 Precise numbers are not available because since 1872 the French Republic has prohibited the recording of any distinction between its citizens regarding either race or religious beliefs in census.

Various estimates put the Muslim population (presently around 64 million in metropolitan France), with the main countries of affiliation being Algeria and Morocco.45 A report by the French Interior Ministry in 2000 estimated that over one third of people with Muslim affiliation (roughly 1.5 million) were self-described “observant believers”46 Notwithstanding periodic controversies, France might reasonably be said to have integrated its Muslim minority more successfully than its European neighbors. One study indicates that roughly equal numbers of French Muslims self-identify first as national citizens as opposed to Muslim.47Nearly, 80 percent also say they want to adopt French customs,48including the legal framework governing religious practices, as part of “a commitment to the overarching norms governing social intercourse in France”49 However, the veil wearing Muslims are seen as belonging to the other France, and social labels such as “oppressed”, “submissive Muslim girls”, “immigrants” are commonplace and they are devoid of the National-Identity French claims to guarantee its citizens, they are rarely seen for who they are, French nationals, indeed, French girls.

When examined in relation to broader questions of multiculturalism and national unity, these youths expose the foundational weakness of the latter (national unity) while exemplifying the former(multiculturalism) through “unmixing” a homogenized notion of Frenchness that is seemingly devoid of ethnic diversity.50 Under the Evian Accords, Algerians were granted special rights of access to the metropole, and children born to Algerian parents in France automatically became French citizens. Algerians were joined by Tunisians and Moroccans; together they represented the largest immigrant stream. On the recommendations of the Council of Europe, in 1970s the families started arriving together. Still anxious to think of this migration as temporary, the government provided social services to children in public schools—including Arabic language classes and religious instruction—thereby encouraging the differences that became grounds for discrimination. When the borders were closed in 1974, even those who had considered their stay temporary begain to settle in large numbers. Domestically, the increasing visibility, from 1983 on, of the National Front party, led by Jean-Marie le Pen, fueled racist depictions of “immigrants” who “breed like rabbits” and will upset the “biological equilibrium.”

Whereas they were depicted during the colonial period as both temptresses and victims, in this postcolonial moment they were most often seen as victims of Muslim patriarchy in general and of predatory Muslim boys in particular. In this way, the picture of the Muslim community as a homogeneous entity, dictating the lives of its female members, was systematically developed; its counterpoint was the individualism and gender equality of republican France.53 Now the question was whether the former colonial subjects would overrun the French homeland, whether, in particular, “Islam” would colonize “France.” Muslims became an enemy within, neither entirely foreign nor yet fully members of the nation—an unassimilated, inassmiable presence that exposed the paradox of the civilizing mission and the ongoing failure of integration.54 La cite des Courtillieres: The Excluded Neighbourhood

I am the voice of the ghetto. I am the voice of the hood. I’m not talking about the Bronx or Soweto-Ghetto, children of the ghetto—but about our neighbourhood. We’ve suffered enough in these projects. –Pit Baccardi and Jackie Brown, Enfants du Ghetto (Delable Records) The public housing and neighbourhood impact the oft-overlooked and less visible dimensions of their lives: their expectations, their thresholds of tolerance, their health, their emotional well-being and their sense of social security. The neighbourhood like the schools, socializes these young people in seemingly contradictory ways, particularly when their living conditions are themselves an expression of violence, albeit of different kind.

And while such young people are taught that France is their country, indeed their homeland, this idea becomes a metaphor for hypocrisy when home is an immense, multistory housing project known as la cite des Courtilliers55 Comments Dr. Keaton, “It is difficult to describe what I have observed and learned about Courtillieres without recalling a term frequently used by both residents and non-residents when describing this place: sale(dirty)…..some of its current residents see few signs of the Courtillieres former glory, which has been overwhelmed by a certain barren, abject poverty that has come to define public housing experience in the French outer cities. In 1995, when I arrived on the scene, only a few basic services were available to people living there, which were succinctly captured by two local middle school teachers in their study of the neighbourhood’s youth culture56 One bakery, one pharmacy, one laundromat, one grocer, one newspaper stand. Zero markets. Zero post offices. No local offices for public utilities. No local offices for public utilities. One city hall annex all the same. One middle school and two elementary school.(Seguin and Teillard)

While African immigrants and their children are denounced in France, it should be remembered that France has historically invited Africans to its shores according to its needs, initially men and subsequently their families through reunification programs. Nor should it be forgotten that scores of African conscripts (les tirailleurs) fought and died for France in French army during both world wars.57 However, there is no end to stereotypical representations that further disparaged people already so vilified. These events recall Jacques Chirac’s insulting and dismissive characterization of African families in 1991 (before he became President of the Republic), families he described as having “three or four wives and twenty-odd children, who receive fifty thousand francs in public assistance without, of course, working…if you add to that the noise and stench, the French worker living on the same floor becomes crazy” Such descriptions elevate one group while downgrading another, without explaining the causes of the social conditions that poor people endure, often across generations.58 CONCLUSION

The gender roles crucial to the French debate on the wearing of veil traces back to the French colonialism of Algeria and the French perception of the veil in colonial Algeria establishes the base for the current biases against veil in the French society. The French brought this belief with them to Algeria. In colonizing, the French sought to turn Algerians “into model French citizens,” a goal that they implemented by infusing Algerian towns with French architecture and language. Forced veil removal became a tool for imposing French identity on Algerians. The French believed that if women removed their veils to cast off their culture, men would loosen their ties to Algerian tradition as well.59 Since, for the French, loyalty to cultural identity embodies the antithesis of loyalty to the Republic, Algerian Islam violated a key component of an ideal French society. As long as Islamic identity persisted in Algeria, Algerian loyalty to the French Republic remained unstable and incomplete. In order to rectify this problem, French colonizers targeted the veil as their gateway to assimilating Algerian Muslims into a larger French identity. An incompatibility between Islam and French national ideals emerged in colonial Algeria.

Thus, the Algerian War was an impression of the multitudinous and numerous meanings of the veil that the French have failed to resolve and reach at a decision. While it continued to reflect upon the backwardness of the Algerian people, but it was also a sign of frustration and humiliation of France. It was the piece of cloth that represented the antithesis of the tricolore, and the failure of the civilizing mission. Immediately after the war, for the new leadership of the Algerian nation, the veil became a contested sign of the future direction of the country.61The French Government failed to recognize, “that there were also those who considered themselves progressive on social and economic issues but who nevertheless endorsed with veil as legitimate expression of religious belief.62 It also carries with it a sense of defiance, a refusal of the Western lifestyle and values of colonizers—whether classic imperialists or, now, global exploiters—and an insistence on the integrity of a history and religion that have for so long been demeaned. If for colonizers the veil was emblazoned with the stigma of ethnicity, for the colonized it became an antidote to domination.63


1.Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, Grove Press, New York, 1965, p.47
2.Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2007, p.44

3.Veronique de Rudder, Christian Poiret and Francois Vourc’h, L’Inegalite raciste: L’ Universalite republicaine a l’epreuve (Racist Inequality: Republican Universalism Put to Test), Presses Universitaires de France, Collection Pratique Theorique, 2000, p.213

4.Joan Wallach Scott, op.cit, p.44

5.Trica Danielle Keaton, Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics and Social Exclusion, Indiana University Press, 2006, p.7

6.Ibid, p.

7.Ibid, p.6

8.Ibid, p.7

9.George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p.5

10.Ibid, p.9

11.Joan Wallach Scott, op.cit, p.45

12.Trica Danielle Keaton, op.cit, p.8

13.Ibid, p.8

14.Ibid, p.9

15.Joan Wallach Scott, op.cit, p.46



18.Hafid Gafaiti, “Nationalism, Colonialism and Ethnic Discourse in the Construction of French Identity, “ in Tyler Stovall and Georges Van Den Abeele, eds, French Civilization and Its Discontents: Nationalism, Colonialism, Race, Lexington Books, Lanham, Md., 2003, p.198

19.Cited in Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil, in Amira El Azhary Sonbol, ed, Women, the Family and Divorce Laws in Islamic History, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, N.Y, 1996, p.8.

20.Joan Wallach Scott, op.cit, p.50

21.MacMaster, Colonial Migrants, p.122

22.Joan Wallach Scott, op.cit, p.61

23.Julia Clancy-Smith, “Islam, Gender, and Identities in the Making of French Algeria, 1830-1962,” in Julia Clancy-Smith and Frances Gouda, eds, Domesticating Empire:Race, Gender and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1998, p.154

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