Thursday 28 July 2011

Behind the Burqa Ban: The Problem with France’s Muslim Feminists

France’s decision to outlaw face veils sparked a robust debate about religion and women’s rights. In response to concerns that the law will negatively impact Muslim women, its advocates frequently mention that it enjoys the approval of several prominent French Muslim feminists. What is not mentioned, however, is that behind their feminist façade, these women have a troubling record of harassing the women they claim to speak for.

Discussions of Muslim feminism in France tend to focus on one woman: Fadela Amara. Born to Algerian immigrants in the 1960s, Amara grew up on the margins of French society. Disillusioned by racism and inequality, she found her voice as an activist in the 1980s. Amara entered the national spotlight in 2004 after founding Ni Putes Ni Soumises (“Neither Whores Nor Submissives”), an organization that raises awareness about gendered violence in France’s suburbs. She later left the group to serve in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, first as Secretary of State for Urban Policies, and currently as Inspector General for Social Affairs.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) rose to prominence in 2003 and 2004 with a mission to speak out against misogyny in France’s suburban, largely Arab “ghettoes.” The group’s rhetoric was deliberately provocative, and some accused its activists of going too far, and unfairly stereotyping suburban (Muslim) men as thugs and rapists. Fadela Amara actually confessed that this was true, but she claimed the organization had changed. While she and NPNS may (or may not) have stopped demonizing Muslim men, their obsession with women’s clothing has only intensified.

Banning the face veil, or niqab, has been a priority for Amara. According to her, the garment “represents not a piece of fabric but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principle of equality between men and women.” NPNS takes the same position, and argues that the ban will “liberate” French Muslims.

But Amara’s view of the world is a deeply skewed one. Where others see a common headscarf, she perceives a diabolical conspiracy to destroy France. She describes the headscarf as “the visible symbol of the subjugation of women,” insists it is “the sign of a political plot” and blames its presence on “green fascism.” Perhaps not surprisingly, she was a staunch supporter of the 2004 law banning headscarves in French public schools.

Amara also says that there is no difference between the headscarf and the burqa. In her words, they are “the same thing.” Both garments, she claims, represent “a political project that aspires for gender inequality” and, ultimately, “the erasure of democracy.” NPNS is equally apocalyptic, describing the hijab as “a visible sign of a societal project that questions the values of the Republic.”

Muslim women often find themselves publicly attacked by NPNS and Fadela Amara for simply wearing a scarf. In 2009, this happened to France’s premier hip-hop artist, Diam’s, when she started covering her hair after converting to Islam. Amara reacted by calling Diam’s “a real danger for the girls in the [suburban] neighborhoods” and accusing her of promoting “a negative image of women.” Sihem Habchi, the current president of NPNS, was also visibly concerned. She called Diam’s change “very sad” and suggested that the artist had let down “a generation who expects her to speak of equality between men and women.” Former NPNS activist Safia Labdi also weighed in, saying that with her new look, Diam’s represented “submission, tradition and confinement.”

Another victim of NPNS fashion policing was Ilham Moussaïd, a political candidate from France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party. Moussaïd hadn’t thought twice about covering her hair when she ran for office in 2010, but NPNS was outraged. Sihem Habchi threatened to file a complaint against Moussaïd’s party, calling it “anti-feminist, anti-secular and anti-republican” for even letting her run. Fadela Amara chimed in, accusing the party of “banalizing a tool of oppression of women.”

A legal challenge to Moussaïd’s candidacy was eventually filed by the French chapter of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA), a group which ironically claims its mission is “to promote Arab women’s active participation in social, economic, cultural, and political life.” The challenge was rejected, but the ordeal deeply disappointed Moussaïd. “For me, being a feminist means defending the right of women to have control over their own lives,” she remarked. “I have control over mine and I’ve made this choice but it’s not respected. These feminists don’t respect it because I haven’t made the same choice as them.”

Opposing the right of women in hijabs to be public servants is bad enough, but NPNS has gone even further by vocally supporting employment discrimination. In 2010, the French media was abuzz after a court rejected the lawsuit of a woman who lost her job for wearing a headscarf. Because the woman’s place of employment – a childcare center – was privately run, it was thought to be exempt from the ban on “religious symbols” in French public institutions. But a court determined that because the center received partial public funding and “indirectly” performed a state service, it was allowed to enforce “religious neutrality,” and could ban employees from wearing the hijab. Both Fadela Amara and NPNS celebrated the decision, even though it could open the door for other employers to shun Muslim women.

Given their open hostility for all women in headscarves, it is no surprise that France’s most famous Muslim feminists rallied behind the “burqa” ban. These women, after all, insist that all Muslim head coverings are symbols of oppression that challenge the sovereignty of the French republic. Such a stance is not only transparently ridiculous, but it puts a “Muslim feminist” stamp of approval on the ugliest forms of discrimination. Until Fadela Amara and NPNS learn that feminism is more than simply forcing other women to be like them, they will continue to hurt the very people they wish to “emancipate.”


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