An existence at odds with the republic: The fight against gendered islamophobia and racism in France
Though the media frenzy has subsided, and some greeted Macron’s slim victory against Le Pen with a sigh of relief, France’s ‘liberal democracy’ was not salvaged, nor did it manage to survive or ‘win’ the presidential elections, as some news headlines put it.
For many, an idyllic France in which ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is respected, never existed. Such a system, if ever revered for its respect of rights and freedoms of all under a democratic republic, remains a national myth that is far removed from the reality of long-standing Muslim communities and other marginalised groups.
Like many Muslims of the ‘francophonie’ and beyond, I felt drained listening to the strong wave of Islamophobic rhetoric, which circulates with free reign and on a loop each French election season. Many friends avoid tuning into electoral interviews and debate segments, to protect their mental health. But the racist climate is hard to escape.
In France, it is especially vile towards Muslim women, migrants, and people of colour, for whom ‘business as usual’ means enduring online hate speech, everyday racism, physical abuse and even death threats. For many, it is to feel ‘othered’ and dehumanised in the only country they have ever known as home.
''Even when the French government made face masks compulsory during the pandemic, it maintained the 2011 ban on face veils in public spaces, with breaches punishable through fines and enrolment in a class on citizenship. In a country where balaclavas are given the nod by Vogue, head covering for religious purposes elicits bigotry and violence.''
This climate was not born in a vacuum. In fact, the far-right’s historic win and continued rise to power in mainstream politics was made possible on Macron’s watch, through a political trajectory he helped set in motion during his time in office. This includes a curtailment of civil liberties through draconian laws, like the 2021 ‘anti-separatism law’, which stifles the freedom of expression and association, and grants public authorities extended executive powers to surveil, administrate, or forcibly dissolve civil society organisations that serve Muslim communities.
Due to their heightened visibility, hijab-wearing women have been particularly stigmatised and increasingly barred from safe and equal participation in public life. Different iterations and extensions of such legislative decisions have made this possible over the past two decades, reinforcing the legal grounds to ban the hijab in public spaces. This includes institutional efforts to prohibit hijab-wearers from accompanying children on school trips.
Even when the French government made face masks compulsory during the pandemic, it maintained the 2011 ban on face veils in public spaces, with breaches punishable through fines and enrolment in a class on citizenship. In a country where balaclavas are given the nod by Vogue, head covering for religious purposes elicits bigotry and violence.
Removing the hijab has increasingly become a requisite for women to navigate the public sphere, and their ‘right to the city’ is somewhat rendered conditional upon it.
Recently, a French administrative court decided to suspend the city of Grenoble’s decision to loosen swimwear rules in municipal pools, which allowed women to wear hijab-compliant burkinis. The legal battle was taken to the country’s top court, the Conseil d'État, which upheld the burkini ban last Tuesday, stating that Grenoble’s vote ‘harms the neutrality of public services.’
This is the same town which had its art festival’s subsidies revoked by the regional authority over a mural of a woman in a hijab earlier this year, in a country where blatantly racist caricatures have been zealously defended on the grounds of freedom of speech.
In reality, gendered islamophobia and racism remains deeply institutionalised in France, even before particular legislative bans are enacted.
The reproduction of difference continues as the state spends vast amounts of time and resources debating the humanity of Muslim women and attempts to refashion what Islam looks like. Government-led initiatives like the ‘Forum of Islam in France’, work towards achieving this.
Though they are silenced from mainstream media discourses and take centre-stage as a topic without being listened to, Muslim women continue to organise against Islamophobic policies. They have long been at the forefront of this battle against the state’s contemporary ‘mission civilisatrice’ to secularise them, and continue to resist the chokehold of western colonial modernity and its proselytism to ‘save’ them.
A campaign group of hijab-wearing athletes known as ‘les Hijabeuses’ have gained traction in that respect. They fight to assert their place on the football field, against a legislative proposal that prohibited the hijab at sports events. This is relevant considering the French Football Federation’s ban against wearing the hijab in official competitions (even though FIFA allows it). Actions have included the #LetUsPlay social media campaign, a petition against the amendment, and organised protests.
The French elections were also a reminder that French society lives in a state of colonial amnesia that goes beyond political and ideological divides.
The political establishment fails to accept the ghosts of its colonial past and its repercussions on the present. The kind of republican society sedimented in French national memory is not one that engages with France’s colonial history, nor with the ethnic diversity that was violently weaved into the metropole’s culture and social fabric.
The nation largely continues to be imagined as a white, European one in essence, appealing to secularist fantasies which at best holds a capacity to tolerate the ‘other’ or invite them ‘in’, under certain conditions. Muslim communities continue to be framed as such; an external problem that has befallen French society and must be contained, rather than a constitutive part of the cultural and labour force upon which France was shaped and continues to be built.
While we are living through a political moment that calls urgent attention to social and political fractures that will cost us the fight against climate change and the erosion of our ecosystem, the recurrent and unimaginative cycle of racist political discourse still features prominently in nationwide conversations. It is fixated on a fight against ‘radicalisation’, in which even ‘international’ supermarket food aisles and halal food have featured as loose components of this national ‘threat’.
In the words of Toni Morrison, ‘the function, the very function of racism, is distraction.’
Though not new, and beyond its framing as a ‘culture war’, the demonisation of Muslims builds on a current political force that extends beyond France’s borders as well. Indeed, the French state does not merely aim to tackle an ‘Islam in crisis’ and regulate it in line with republican ideals. It also functions to entrench the country’s long-standing ‘war on terror’ agenda, through the expansion of the surveillance state.
Yasmine Kherfi is a researcher and doctoral candidate based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Follow her on Twitter: @yasmine_kherfi
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