France and the Burqa: citizenship as a tool of prescriptive feminism
By: Eurasia Review
Source: Eurasia Review
An interesting new paper recently published in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, discusses the impact of the 2011 campaign, carried out by the French government, to publicize and promote the law banning the full veil from public spaces. The paper goes on to discuss how this campaign used specific norms of female dress in order to establish a certain understanding of French citizenship, which in turn only served to further alienate young Muslim women in France.
In 2007 President Sarkozy pledged to ‘protect’ women from oppression. He led a nationwide consultation and political campaign centred on gender and nationalism to publicise and promote the law banning the full veil from public spaces. This brought forward tensions with Islam and raised questions about the exclusionary nature of French citizenship. In 2011 an act was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public spaces; the burqa ban. A new article by Claire Hancock in Gender, Place and Culture studies the implications for gender, race, religion and citizenship in France. Can a veiled woman be truly French?
This article originates from fieldwork, with young Muslim women in a banlieue of Paris, most of whom are from an immigrant background. Many of these young women have expressed, in interviews, their sense of being in many ways ‘non-French’ and often also physically inadequate. They tell stories of abuse, either physical or verbal, from complete strangers, in different areas of the Paris region where they live, and quite often the abuse centres on the way they dress, and implies that they do not belong. Many of them also point to television and newspaper coverage of Islam as a trigger of these aggressions and a major influence on their everyday experiences.
Some of this abuse, the paper argues, can be attributed to this campaign by the French government, which was proudly entitled ‘the Republic is lived with an uncovered face’. A leaflet for the campaign comments that: “To oblige a woman, whatever her age, to hide her face, is an offense to her dignity. It also contravenes the principle of equality between men and women.” These remarks, Hancock argues, assume that veil wearing is imposed on the wearers by (presumably male, presumably fundamentalist) external influences. Not only does this go against research findings, it also exemplifies a patronizing attitude to women that somehow, in France, is allowed to parade as ‘feminist.’
Furthermore, the campaign implied that veil wearing French women fall short of the widely perceived ideal of a French woman; represented here by a classical bust of ‘Marianne’, a national symbol of the French Republic, liberty and traditional female identity. So whilst the intention of this campaign may have been to liberate young Muslim women, it instead served to alienate them further in French society.
Hancock notes, “veil-wearing women seem to encapsulate many of France’s contradictions in its attitudes to gender, race, and citizenship, and have been scapegoated in ways that sometimes suggest they are the single most important threat to the French nation.”
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