Pretoria to Paris: Women's bodies remain a colonial battlefield
In October 1989, three French Muslim schoolgirls were expelled from school for wearing headscarves. The principal and teachers interpreted their refusal to remove the scarves as an attack on laicité (secularism) in public schools.
By 2004, the headscarf was banned in all French public schools, and by 2011 full-face veils were outlawed. In 2016, the "burkini", a full-body swimsuit that allows many Muslim women to swim with the majority of their skin covered, was declared illegal.
In South Africa, we were still absorbing the images of Muslim women being coerced out of their swimwear by armed police on French beaches, when reports emerged of a black student at Pretoria Girls High School (PGHS) not being allowed to sit her exam, another forced to serve detention, and others verbally abused and humiliated - because their natural hair did not conform to the school's code of conduct.
In protest, PGHS students unleashed a movement inspiring many other black students to expose the racist hair policies and codes of conduct at South Africa's former whites-only, also known as Model C, schools.
A continent away, and linguistically different , France's burkini ban and the PGHS hair policy spring from the same colonial well. The French fixation with unveiling Muslim women originates from French colonialism in North Africa, particularly Algeria in the late 1950's.
Frantz Fanon's 1959 essay, Algeria Unveiled, reveals how French colonisers believed that unveiling Algerian women would destroy Algerian resistance to French colonialism.
|For centuries, black girls around the world have grown up believing that their hair, in its natural state, is something that needs to be fixed.|
They asked nicely at first. "You're so pretty, you should unveil yourself," posters told Muslim Algerian women, urging them to be like the women in the ruling country. The veil, a potent symbol of Algerian national existence, was also forcibly removed by French forces, and called "liberation".
For centuries, black girls around the world have grown up believing that their hair, in its natural state, is something that needs to be fixed. The Afro was seen as "uncivilised", initially by white slave masters, and later colonisers.
It needed to be transformed into straight hair - an attribute of white women - in order for it to be accepted and considered beautiful.
What we've seen in the last week is that from Pretoria to Paris, women's bodies are still being policed according to the rules of white colonialism and respectability, under the guise of multiculturalism.
Writing this week about the PGHS code of conduct, South African social commentator, Khaya Dlanga, argued that multiculturalism is a myth in many Model C schools. These schools are seen to be the archetype of South Africa's "rainbow nation", students of all races and cultures, learning together in harmony.
"What schools mean by multiculturalism is assimilation and domination of all other cultures by one to form a monoculture," explained Dlanga.
For black women, that means we'll accept your body, but only if it fits white norms of acceptability. Dlanga's analysis applies to French secularism too.
|Over the last decade, hundreds of Muslim women have been fired from their jobs because they wear a headscarf.|
Muslim women in France will be accepted, but only if their clothes fit white feminist specifications of suitability. Laicité is code for institutionalised Islamophobia and racism in France.
Scarf-wearing Muslim women were not invited to the meetings held by France's established feminist groups. With that strip of cloth on their heads, Muslim women surely couldn't be feminists, could they?
Most French feminists saw no problem with the 2004 headscarf ban in public schools, that excluded covered Muslim girls from schools and violating their right to education.
French women's rights groups were silent on a 2011 banning of the face veil in public, denying the Muslim women who choose to cover themselves access to public spaces.
Over the last decade, hundreds of Muslim women have been fired from their jobs because they wear a headscarf. Throughout it all, mainstream French feminists gave their tacit approval of the French government's actions.
Yet these same feminists have devoted inordinate amounts of time and energy deconstructing and denouncing the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Is it oppression only when brown men tell women how to dress? Why is it called "liberation" when white men in a liberal western democracy police women? Is the morality police of Paris or Cannes more moral than those in Jeddah or Tehran?
From South Africa to France, black and brown women are sick and tired of having colonial feminism imposed on us. Stop telling us that our hair is not straight enough, our skins not fair enough, our clothing not revealing enough.
We will choose how to wear our hair, and how to cover it. We don't need anyone to save us from our hair or headscarf.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher for Media Review Network, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo
This article was orginally published on Suraya's blog, which you can check out here.