Liberté, Egalité, Féminisme?

Sihame Assbague speaking at a forum about the French state of emergency, December 16, 2015. Photo by Vincent Jarousseau.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the July 2016 attack in Nice, sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar explained in the New York Times why France has become such a target. “Young people in the banlieues, marginalized and with few prospects, feel like victims,” he wrote. “They become prime targets for jihadist propaganda, often after a stint in prison for petty crimes.” Many echoed this theory, arguing that entrenched socioeconomic marginalization of non-whites, including their ghettoization in immigrant suburbs, or banlieues, coupled with job discrimination, racial profiling, and other forms of racism and Islamophobia have produced a generation of young Muslims deeply alienated from France, with some turning to violent, radical Islam.

The specter of “home-grown jihadism” has dominated discussions of French Islam. While many simply blame Muslims and Islam for terrorism and call for more repressive tactics in the name of security, some on the left have, for pragmatic reasons, begun to take seriously the factors that create the context for jihadism, such as socioeconomic marginalization and racism against French Muslims. Surprisingly little credence on any side, however, has been given to new political movements, led by French Muslims, that are challenging the French racism and Islamophobia that can provide fertile ground for jihadism. And despite the widespread perception of Islam as oppressive to women, it is Muslim women who are playing a prominent role in these new movements.

As recent gatherings of anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia activists in France have shown, minority and Muslim women are taking the lead in the fight against racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, and a general crackdown on Muslims’ civil liberties, and they reflect a new generation of activists critical of both mainstream French feminist and mainstream French anti-racist movements. These activists argue that French feminism’s antipathy for religion generally, and for Islam especially, not only excludes Muslim women but also makes French feminism incapable of addressing anti-Muslim forms of racism and sexism. They also argue that mainstream anti-racist associations do not understand the institutional depth of racism in France, and, moreover, that the zealous secularism of these associations prevents them from defending publicly observant Muslims, like women who wear headscarves. After all, they point out, almost none of the mainstream anti-racist groups came out against the 2004 law banning “conspicuous religious signs” in public schools (known as the headscarf law), nor have their media or grassroots campaigns highlighted Islamophobia.

These Muslim feminist activists’ two-pronged critique of mainstream feminism and mainstream anti-racism signals the dual and entangled nature of discrimination against Muslims in France. “Muslim” has become a religious and quasi-racial classification to refer to people of North and West African descent. Muslims are targeted on the basis of their race—often at the hands of police—and their religion—often through discriminatory laws, like the 2004 headscarf law and the 2010 law banning face veils in all public spaces, laws that were passed in the name of gender equality and with full-throated support from most mainstream feminist organizations. Indeed, this new generation of Muslim women was galvanized by two watershed events: the deaths in October 2005 of two non-white teenage boys who were being chased by police, which led to nationwide riots and the declaration of a state of emergency by the French government, and the 2004 headscarf law.

On October 27, 2005, three teenagers, Bouna Traoré, Zyed Benna, and Muhittin Altun ran from police investigating a break-in at a construction site in Clichy-sous-Bois, an immigrant suburb of Paris. The boys were unconnected to the break-in; they had been playing football with their friends. But their reaction was unsurprising: racial profiling is rampant in France, and police are notorious for random identity checks and subsequent detentions of non-white youth for minor infractions. Chased by the police, the three boys hid in a power station, where Bouna and Zyed were fatally electrocuted, and Muhittin was badly burned. The event, which crystallized long-running frustration among banlieue youth about police harassment and their status as social pariahs, triggered massive civil unrest across France, with young men burning cars and confronting riot police.

For eighteen-year-old Sihame Assbague, who had not grown up in the banlieues but in Paris proper, this moment was a wake-up call. In a 2015 interview with Les Inrocks magazine, Assbague, now a spokeswoman for the organization Stop Racial Profiling, recalls her sudden sense of kinship with those banlieue youth, her feeling that “my brothers were dead, and that everywhere they were in revolt.” She herself had experienced police harassment first-hand, when cops claiming to look for her own brother had forced their way into her family’s apartment and searched indiscriminately through her belongings. But the deaths of Zyed and Bouna, and the political elite’s focus on violent youth rather than violent police, drove home the failure of the Republic to live up to its principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

A damning 2009 Amnesty International report called Public Outrage: Police Officers Above the Law in France details police abuse and violence—sometimes fatal—against minorities, which has only increased with the state of emergency declared after the November 2015 terrorist attacks. Another 2009 study found that black and North African men were six to eight times more likely than whites to be stopped by police. And police brutality in France remains a problem. Just a few months ago, on July 19, Adama Traoré (no relation to Bouna) died in police custody in yet another Parisian banlieue. Though the police claim he died of a pre-existing infection, Traoré’s death sparked outrage and online and street demonstrations by anti-racist organizations like Assbague’s, marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter France.

If Muslim males find themselves in the crosshairs of the police, Muslim women have been the targets of legal Islamophobia. A year before the 2005 electrocution of Bouna and Zyed, the French National Assembly voted almost unanimously to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious signs in public schools. While the language was neutral to avoid sanctions from the European Court of Human Rights, the bill—called the “Law on the Veil” by press outlets—was clearly aimed at the Islamic headscarf, and jeopardized the education of thousands of veiled Muslim girls. In early 2004, when the law had just been proposed, a number of progressive activists came together to form the One School for All collective (UEPT) to contest the law. The collective included observant Muslims, anti-racist activists, longtime white feminists, and members of far-left parties. For a number of young Muslims, like Houria Bouteldja of the Indigènes of the Republic Party (indigène means colonial subjects) and Ismahane Chouder of Muslim Presence and Spirituality, this was their first taste of activism. They were mobilized by the clearly discriminatory nature of the law, the increasingly Islamophobic tenor of French public discourse, and the sense that they were targets of French racism not only as Arabs or Africans but also as Muslims.

Around the same time, the National Collective for Women’s Rights (CNDF) began to plan for the yearly International Women’s Day march. When the CNDF held a meeting to finalize the march’s manifesto, some veiled feminists from the UEPT, including Chouder, attended, much to the displeasure of many in the room. Mainstream feminists were already divided about how to address the headscarf law: most condemned the veil and supported the law, while a few criticized both the veil (as oppressive) and the law (for targeting minor girls). None welcomed the presence of UEPT feminists: they were shouted down during the meeting, and the CNDF refused to accept the UEPT as a signatory to the manifesto. Things got even worse on the day of the march: organizers actively blocked UEPT activists from joining the march, and others in the demonstration yelled at those in headscarves to move to Iran or Saudi Arabia if they wanted to veil.

In response to their exclusion by mainstream feminists, some members of the UEPT formed the Collective of Feminists for Equality (CFPE) in June 2004. Restricted to women, the CFPE cut across ethnic, racial, religious, class, and generational lines, bringing established feminists together with younger Muslim activists, many of them religiously devout. The collective sought to show how gender discrimination was always connected to other forms of discrimination as well as to expand the definition of emancipation to include religiously inspired modes of liberation. It sought, in other words, to pluralize feminism, hence the careful choice of its name: Collective of Feminists rather than Feminist Collective. Explicitly foregrounding the possibility of being a Muslim and a feminist, the group’s manifesto was called Inch’Allah l’égalité: Equality, God Willing.

Soon, however, tensions emerged within the group, though one could see them as productive, since they took Muslim feminism in new directions. A number of Muslim women, both devout and not, felt that, despite its careful naming, certain modes of women’s liberation were privileged over others, and that white feminists continued to set the CFPE’s agenda. For example, devout Muslim women could not agree to an unrestricted right to abortion, a longtime feminist priority to which many secular members of the CFPE remained committed. Nor could these Muslim women march under the slogan “My body belongs to me,” as secular members wanted to do in a 2005 demonstration celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the French legalization of abortion, since they hold that their bodies belong to God. Other, less devout Muslim women were indifferent to, rather than ethically uncomfortable with, the key feminist issues of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. They simply argued that these are not the most pressing issues affecting minority communities in France, and racism, police brutality, and other forms of state violence are.

These various critics broke away from the CFPE to form smaller groups, though what united them all was the basic premise that the claims and struggles of a dominant white, middle-class feminism are not universally applicable, that oppression takes many forms, that gender relations play out in different ways in different contexts, and that women’s interests are therefore multiple. A number of CFPE members formed the short-lived association Indigènes Feminists, which inaugurated an intersectional perspective in France, one that sees feminism as a struggle against, simultaneously, racism, classism, and sexism. Thus the association’s charter stated its refusal to privilege the anti-racist fight over the feminist struggle, or vice versa. Though Assbague was not a member of Indigènes Feminists, her activism as a feminist emerged from a similar perspective. As she told Les Inrocks, “I am a woman but my identity is multiple: I’m also of Moroccan origin, I am also Muslim, and I’m also from a poor neighborhood and a working-class family.” Taking all these factors into account means recognizing “the triple oppression of race, gender, and class.” It also means recognizing that the French state discriminates against Muslim men and Muslim women in different ways, and that the imprisonment and police murder of Muslim men impacts, emotionally and economically, the sisters, wives, and mothers they leave behind.

Another member of the Indigènes Feminists was Bouteldja of the PIR, who has now turned her back on feminism completely, seeing it as, at best, irrelevant to the struggles of minorities and, at worst, an attempt to make Muslims conform to the dictates of the white majority in France. She does not identify as an intersectional feminist like Assbague, because, she told me, the historical and political specificity of feminism’s emergence in Europe and the United States make it untranslatable to other struggles. When I asked her why she had organized the PIR’s tenth anniversary celebration to feature only women of color—seemingly a feminist statement par excellence—she said that she wanted to valorize the real, rather than imagined, struggles of the women of her community. That real struggle, she continued, “has been about the violence of the state.” Her new book cites former Black Panther Assata Shakur’s statement that “we cannot be free while our men are oppressed.” Following this line, Bouteldja takes some controversial positions, demanding communal allegiance from minority women and writing that as long as racism exists, “the critique of indigène patriarchy is a luxury.”

Bouteldja seems to posit a clear hierarchy of priorities—racism first, patriarchy second—in part because any critique of indigène men can be coopted by the state to further stigmatize them. But she is also arguing more subtly that racism exacerbates, even generates, gender violence and inequality in the banlieues, and so one cannot improve gender relations without addressing racism. Bouteldja’s critique is reminiscent of some aspects of black feminism in the United States, and her citation of Shakur is not coincidental. She, Assbague, and other Muslim women activists draw inspiration from black, Chicana, and postcolonial feminist currents in the United States, including many black feminists’ focus on police violence and the mass incarceration of black men. More than white, middle-class feminists’ continued emphasis on reproductive rights, it is these critiques that resonate for Muslim communities in France, where ghettoization, racial profiling, and a structurally racist criminal justice system mean that Arab- and African-Muslim men—about 8 percent of the population—comprise up to 50 percent of the prison population, according to the sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar.

While intersectional feminists like Assbague and reluctant feminists like Bouteldja certainly see themselves as Muslims, they are not particularly devout, and for many, their Muslimness can be more of a cultural and racial identity than a religious one. In contrast, hundreds of young women—part of an Islamic revival in Europe that emerged in the late 1990s that mobilized tens of thousands of young Muslim French—have taken up the mantle of Islamic feminism, which rejects the secularity of mainstream feminism and seeks not only to maintain an Islamic ethic but also to find arguments for gender equality in the Quran.

Like Assbague and Bouteldja, these activists have found inspiration in work by non-French scholars. Much of that work was gathered in one volume, translated into French, and published in 2012 as Islamic Feminisms by Zahra Ali. Ali has been an activist since she was a teenager, first with Al Houda, a Muslim women’s group in her hometown of Rennes in Brittany, and then with the CFPE. While Islamic feminism has existed as a field of both scholarship and activism for decades elsewhere in the world, Ali’s book was the first of its kind in France.

The ideas articulated in Islamic Feminisms have also been circulating informally in Muslim French women’s reading circles for over a decade. Born and raised in France, and committed to basic liberal feminist notions of liberty and equality, these young Muslims sought to distinguish between the patriarchal cultural traditions of the Maghreb—like demanding modesty and virginity from young women but not young men—and what they view as “authentic” Islam. In groups like Al Houda, young women gathered to criticize the sexism of conventional Islamic exegesis and jurisprudence—which largely treats women as wives, daughters, and mothers—and to explore new ways to conceptualize Islam. They were just as critical, however, of mainstream feminism’s claim that women’s emancipation entails the rejection of religion and religious norms. As Islamic feminists, they argued, they could be both devout Muslims and committed to gender equality.

Islamic feminism, spearheaded by scholars and activists, began to emerge globally in the late 1980s. Unlike secular feminists, Islamic feminists begin with the premise that the Quran constitutes Divine Speech. From that basis, they argue that equality is the founding principle of Islam, and that the Quran endorses equality between the sexes. Thus Amina Wadud’s Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1992)—a key text in this movement—reinterprets passages used to justify sexist and misogynist practices (such as the beating of recalcitrant wives and the unequal distribution of inheritance, for example) and argues for very different meanings.

In a similar vein, Asma Barlas, a Pakistani academic who teaches in the United States, claims in her influential “Believing Women” in Islam (2002) that the Quran is explicitly “egalitarian and antipatriarchal.” Contrary to popular belief in much of the Muslim world, Barlas contends, the Quran expects both sexes to live by the same moral standards, and this moral equality between men and women means that chastity and modesty are as incumbent upon men as they are on women—a point reiterated again and again by young Muslim feminists in France.

Islamic feminists also argue that the Prophet Mohammed defended the rights of women in a tribal society known for its misogyny, and they point to the active presence of women in political life and on the battlefield in the early days of Islam. Wadud, Barlas, and others argue that Islamic teachings used to justify the gender inequality endemic to so many Muslim societies today derive not from the Quran itself but from Quranic exegesis (tafsir), undertaken for centuries by men whose own misogyny has come to eclipse the revolutionary message of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Hence the need to re-read the Quran against the grain of centuries of interpretation in order to recover Islam’s true principles.

If this sounds almost entirely compatible with mainstream secular feminism, there are, Barlas notes, significant points of tension. The Quran’s concern with bodily modesty is based on a view that all bodies—not just female ones—are potentially erotic. But if that view is fundamentally at odds with conservative ideas about women’s sexuality, it is also at odds, Barlas says, with Western feminist views of the body, since a potentially erotic body needs to remain modestly covered and private. Barlas is right that attitudes toward the body can be a major source of disagreement between Islamic and secular-liberal feminists—hence the conflict within the CFPE over abortion rights. In fact, a number of Muslim women, including the members of Al Houda, left the collective as a result of these disagreements, not because they could not work with secular women who supported abortion rights, but because they felt their own positions were not respected by secular feminist allies who seemed to be waiting for them to “evolve” to more emancipated—that is, secular, liberal—attitudes.

That even secular feminists who had actively chosen to work with devout Muslim women were dismissive of Islamic ethical commitments speaks to the difficulty of creating alliances between white, secular activists and Islamic and intersectional feminists, and to the marginal position of these various expressions of Muslim feminism in France. Though Assbague’s message about police brutality sometimes resonates on the political left—the ruling Socialist Party has called for a “transparent” investigation of Adama Traoré’s death, for example—she and Bouteldja have also been called communalists and anti-white racists by mainstream and far-left critics.

Mainstream feminist critics overlook the ways in which Islamophobia is also highly gendered, as is evident from debates around the headscarf, which remains deeply disturbing to almost all non-Muslim French. Although the High Court recently declared that the Cannes burkini ban violates fundamental freedoms and is therefore illegal, the bans are politically popular, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls calling the burkini a form of “women’s enslavement” and “not compatible with the values of France.” A new law on the workplace proposes making it legal for private companies to discriminate against employees who do not respect secular neutrality (namely, women in headscarves). The public sector already obliges such neutrality on employees. And when companies like Dolce & Gabbana and H&M recently released clothing collections aimed at Muslim women featuring fashionable headscarves, a number of French feminists called for a boycott of those labels. Minister for Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol even compared veiled women to “American negroes who were in favor of slavery.” The burkini bans, the workplace law, and the 2004 headscarf law target Muslim women in particular, jeopardizing the education, employment, and fundamental social freedoms of thousands of women and girls. And these kinds of clamp-downs on Muslims’ civil rights continue to grow, fed by a generalized hostility to Islam that intensifies with each terrorist attack.

There are two interconnected issues at play here that French feminists need to take into account. First, any feminism that sees itself as pluralist and that recognizes that emancipation can take many forms needs to also take seriously non-secular ways of conceptualizing oneself. Coalitions and alliances between different kinds of feminists are only possible, as Ali writes in the conclusion to Islamic Feminisms, “when certain agendas and priorities in the struggle are not imposed on others, and where there’s a real recognition of the plurality of ways to fight for women’s rights.” And as Assbague and Bouteldja rightly argue, police brutality and state racism are issues of everyday concern to Muslim and minority women, and therefore feminist issues. Moreover, failing to rethink—and expand—our vision of emancipation means that Muslim women will continue to pay the price of Islamophobia in France.


Mayanthi Fernando is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014).



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