“Neither Whores Nor Submissive”

  Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social ExclusionTrica Danielle KeatonBloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006, 223 pp., $22.95, paperback Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto Fadela Amara with Sylvia Zappi, translated by Helen Harden Chenut Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, 179 pp., $16.95, paperback Reviewed by Eunice Lipton Because of the misinformation rampant among Americans about recent French law, I’d like to start with a couple of facts: There is no law in France prohibiting Muslim women from wearing headscarves. There is a law, passed and enacted in 2004, against the ostentatious display of religious symbols in public schools, up through lycée (high school). Forbidden are yarmulkes, large stars of David or Christian crosses, headscarves, and veils. At university anyone can wear anything he or she likes, as one can in any public space or building in France. Americans tend to see this ban on religious display as a repression of freedom of speech or religion. Unlike the United States, however, France is fiercely secular, and French people find any public manifestation of religion distasteful. There is no taking of oaths on Bibles, no mention of God on Euro bills, and no invocation of a higher power in the political arena.Thus, an overwhelming majority of French people of varying religious, ethnic, and class backgrounds—concierges, social workers, actors, bar owners, schoolteachers, doctors, butchers, construction workers, artists, and so on—support the prohibition. Across the political spectrum, the French believe their republic is for all; everyone gets the same French chance. To treat everyone equally, they believe, cultural differences must be downplayed in the public sphere, particularly during children’s formative years. This minimization of differences is meant to influence children’s self-image as well as the way others see them. The French assume that if you call attention to your otherness, you will be treated as other. But if you become part of the French state through its long vaunted (but alas increasingly mediocre) educational system, you will become a citizen of the greatest country on earth, the founder and purveyor of freedom for all: liberté, égalité, fraternité. These are not abstract or ephemeral convictions to the French. They are the heart and soul of their identity. Some think the strategy works so well that it explains, at least in part, why there are so many interracial relationships in France. However, recently it has become clear that assimilation is not working—and with a vengeance—as the violent demonstrations in largely Muslim suburbs (banlieues) all over France in the fall of 2005 showed. As the rap singer Monsieur R, the French-born son of Congolese parents, sings in his song, “FranSSe,” France abandoned its children without warning. Like my Jewish brothers controlled by Nazis…. Now it's France that checks my color. So understand my hate…I'm in pain.”  Put simply, the French may have good intentions, but they are blind to their “whiteness.” Believing they are normal and everyone else is different, they don’t see their privilege. Two mind-boggling examples: First, despite their insistence on the utterly secular character of the French state, two-thirds of French public holidays are Christian. None are Muslim or Jewish. Second, although the French government recently mandated that schools teach about the country’s colonialist adventures, they present only their benefits. As one African immigrant put it, “Before affirmative action, or anything else, France has to recognize its colonial past. No one knows why Algerians, Malians and Senegalese are here [in France].”  It is in this context of both France’s xenophobia and its Republicanism that I want to consider the two books under review. Breaking the Silence, by Fadela Amara, a French-born woman whose parents came from Algeria, is a call to action, seventies-feminist style. Amara grew up in the Auvergne region of France. She says of herself: If, in the present debate over identity politics, I were asked to define myself in terms of a certain category, in the end I would call myself a “woman of Auvergne”…. My own France…is the France of the Enlightenment, the France of the republic, the France of Marianne, of the supporters of Alfred Dreyfus, of the Paris Commune, of the Resistance. In her home, says Amara,“[M]y oldest brother had nearly all the rights; my sisters and I almost none.” There were no summers away from Paris for the girls; instead, there were endless discussions about whether they could go out to see a movie and what curfews should be imposed. Their “duty,” as Amara puts it, above all, was to remain virgins. Married women went out only to shop. Amara is infuriated that girls were “taught how to run a household and trained to become good wives and mothers.”  And nothing else.In other words, she suffered the “normal” sexism most of us have known one way or another, but she was sufficiently free to find her outrage, by way of her French schooling and the values of the French Republic. She and her friends were further radicalized by working in SOS Racisme, a group formed in the 1980s to fight discrimination in France. For a short period, SOS made multiculturalism acceptable. Normally the idea and philosophical scaffolding of Frenchness is so pervasive that the idea of a France defined by its many cultures remains distasteful. But during the period of the 1980s, things changed briefly. And with that change of mentality came changes for women. Amara writes, “Hundreds of women suddenly had a new freedom of movement and the possibility of choosing their partners…. as long as the young woman did not exhibit herself publicly, she could have a love life.” Just like other French women.During the 1990s, Amara and her friends witnessed the changes produced by mass unemployment in the suburban housing projects ringing large cities such as Strasbourg, Narbonne, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Bordeaux, Marseille, and Paris. She writes, “[Men’s] forced idleness completely upset their roles within the family and undermined their authority as fathers.” In this altered economic and religious setting, boys became “kings within their family and nobodies outside the home.” With the help of newly arrived imams, these boys swam in to “protect” their fathers’ masculinity as well as their own. Growing armies of “hypervirile” male youths took out their feelings of social impotence and rage on girls who, in their eyes, didn’t conform to religious Muslim behavior. But, “during my adolescence,” Amara remembers, “it was considered natural for us to wear short skirts, tight-fitting jeans, low-cut blouses, and short T-shirts. No man would have dared to make offensive remarks.” No longer. Aside from the ferocious sexism, let us not ignore the sad paradox of such antisensual attitudes in the country whose name is nearly synonymous with desire and pleasure. In what country are the satisfactions of the senses as important to daily life as they are in France? Touching, tasting, listening, smelling, seeing—all the senses are ever on alert, ever fulfilled. Sometimes I wonder, What are fundamentalist Muslims doing in this country? Yes, they want jobs, and having come from French colonies they speak French, but their restrictions on women and on themselves seem so un-French. In the face of the increasing numbers of girls forced into marriages, sodomized (so their hymens would not be broken), abducted to their parents’ countries of origin, and attacked for “misbehaving,” Amara and some friends decided to organize. Their March 2002 petition drive used the slogan “Neither whores nor submissive” (Ni Putes Ni Soumises)—in response to what they saw as the defining male attitude of “all whores except my mother.” The women’s slogan “bothered some people, but it was really effective,” says Amara. Then, in October 2002, a dreadful thing happened. A girl named Sohane Benziane was murdered by a local gang leader, for ostensibly un-Muslim behavior. Amara and her colleagues were enraged. They formed Neighborhood Women for Equality and Against the Ghetto and set out on a march across France. The positive response the antiviolence marchers received wherever they went took Amara by surprise. But the problem remains the same today if not worse.If at first Amara—a practicing Muslim who never wore a scarf, and whose mother and grandmother never did either—supported the right of girls to wear symbolic scarves and veils at school, she later changed her mind. In the postscript to her book, she writes, Now, looking back over all my encounters in France, I realize that this law [against religious display in schools] was more than necessary …. [T]he headscarf is nothing more than a means of oppression emanating from a patriarchal society.”  Earlier, Amara said even more sharply, “[B]ehind this symbol is a project for a different society than our own: a fascist-like society that has nothing to do with democracy.  Trica Danielle Keaton’s book, Muslim Girls and the Other France, is another sort of book entirely. It too is a call to arms, but in contrast to Amara’s personal, impassioned plea, it is measured and analytic—its cadences are those of a committed, engaged intellectual. Still, for all its hard-headed, theoretically penetrating analyses, it is also a tender treatise. It is full of love—for girls, who have the right to live fully, and for all marginalized people, who should have all rights that white French people have. Keaton believes the French have responded as they have to the headscarf as a way of denying what they have done to African immigrants and their French-born children. That is, instead of confronting economic and educational issues, the French government is focusing on the inappropriateness of the headscarf and the need for a universalist—rather than separatist—approach to social and moral behavior. But to Keaton, the stress the French place on a common culture “becomes a form of symbolic violence.” She rightly guffaws at the French saying, “nos ancêtres, les gaulois” (“our ancestors, the Gauls”). These girls and their families are hardly the descendents of Gauls. Yet they are French.In fact, when mostly Muslim students and parents from the banlieues protest the poverty of their schools and the decrepitude of their learning materials, they are not complaining about the tyranny of universalizing French ideology. Ironically, the ideology, in this case, is working. These Muslim immigrants consider themselves French (and “white”) and therefore deserving of the good schools other French people have. That is, they are neither critiquing nor are they enraged by the French demand that everybody be the same—or rather, that they are the same, with a common language, common education, and common privileges. Because of that supposed sameness, the French Republic treats everyone equally—“fraternally.” Except, of course, it doesn’t. France is in a historic bind. It is a country with a great history, but its time is over unless it makes fundamental changes. French people of European ancestry must admit their deep-seated prejudice against foreigners—including the French-speaking people of different cultures in their midst. What might help them is a consideration of their own multifacetedness. France is made up of many regions, with strong identities. French towns include some people who collaborated during World War II, some who resisted, and some who did nothing. Some French people are Catholics, some Protestants, some atheists, Muslims, Jews, and Freemasons. Most don’t give a damn one way or the other. If the French really saw their own European multifacetedness, they would let in “others,” because they would see the other in themselves.  White European France is a thing of the past. Eunice Lipton, is the author of Alias Olympia, and recently published French Seduction: An American's Encounter with France, her Father, and the Holocaust. She lives in Paris and New York.
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