Month: August 2016

The ‘Burkini’, The Colonial Gaze and The body.

A few days ago armed policemen ordered a French Muslim woman who was lying and peacefully relaxing on the beach in Nice to partly undress. They then proceeded to fine her. All that under the watchful gaze of hundreds of silent beach goers. The incident quickly gained global attention and put the spotlight onto the so-called ‘burkini ban’ in France (which has now been suspended) although, the woman was not actually wearing a ‘burkini’ at all but, what appears to be a light blue tunic and a headscarf. These details became lost. The photographs of the incident went viral and appeared on my twitter timeline on Tuesday evening.

It is quite difficult to describe the wave of emotions which went through me as I saw them. Or how my body witnessed and experienced the pictures of the interaction. I watched with watering eyes. Shocked. Anger came later. The series of photographs documented the public dehumanisation of a fellow French woman. A fellow woman of colour who through her ordeal has become the focus of an international sadistic appetite for all things Muslim, her humiliation globally available. A woman whose body has been turned into an ideological spectacle. Because she happened to be on the beach, while Muslim. In France, specifically in Nice.

The power dynamics are naturally worthy of attention here. As are the symbolic and social functions of the fine given, in terms of its reproduction of certain discursive notions. The notion that Islam and Frenchness are mutually exclusive and, the corresponding and powerfully enforced, hemogeny in relation to France’s misconceived and selectively enforced secularism. Subtly evoked too is the notion that people of colour and immigrants are a burden to France.  And, equally worthy of note, is the act of undressing itself, publically, which cannot but evoke colonialism and specifically, France’s relationship with the colonial subject both historically and analytically.

As a French woman of colour who’s made England her home, I am regularly questioned on my experience of racism. I am asked to make comparisons between racism in England and racism in France. Usually, such requests are initiated by British people who for various reasons have convinced themselves that they are more tolerant than their French counterparts and actually want me to confirm the same. They essentially expect me to give their ego a tender caress. I usually refrain, smile and try not to engage in such conversations. Either because I do not want to bruise egos, disappoint or, do not have the energy to get into the depths necessary to meaningfully make my point.

I am not a Muslim woman. Yet, those pictures did something to me. They awoke something in my body before my brain could process the human right violation captured on camera. Before I could assess how significant this moment was for women’s rights.  Even before I could utter or think the word discrimination, or the word racism, or sexism, or islamophobia.  My body got there first. Perhaps, it remembered the kind of racism I have experienced in France. I do believe that when one’s body is repeatedly placed in the position of the Other through a particular and highly sexualized gaze, that this trauma may well become marked in its physiology.

The truth is, I do not believe that French people are more racist than the English but I do believe the racism I have experienced in France is of a different breed. Not only because it is often more overt and unapologetically so, but also because it has always felt more sexual. Undoubtedly so.  There is a long and complex history of sexualised imperialism that France has engaged in. From the unveiling of North African women which was common practice within North African colonies as, was/is the feshitisation of the Black female – or more generally indigenous – body. To the naked exhibition of colonial subjects, notably that of Saartjie Baartman.

France’s obsession with assimilating the colonial subject has also manifested in high rates of mixed relationships (and thus, of slave rapes) within its empire. It has given birth to the continuing exotisation of women of colour and the idealisation of ‘métisses‘ (mixed race people). As Fanon and others have articulated, assimilating is ultimately possessing thus annihilating the Other. It is denying its independence as an object. It is blurring physical and psychological/psychic boundaries. This blurring of boundaries, that yearning for possession of the object of both contempt/fear and desire, is experienced through the body. This may explain the embodied response described above and perhaps also, why France’s racism has always made me more conscious of my body.

Sex is the ultimate of act assimilation. It is therefore not coincidental that, to France, it appears, more acceptable forms of relationship with the Other must involve sexual availability, if not consumption. Consequently, the undressing of a Muslim woman, is not only a political act. It is also a colonial act which betrays a particular psychological relationship with difference. In that sense, it is completely unsurprising that Muslim women’s bodies would be the focus of discussions on Islam in France. That they would become an object of patriarchal obsession and bear the brunt of islamophobia. Muslim women who wear the Hijab, burka or ‘burkini’ pause a psychic threat to those whose only mode of relating to the Other is to consume it, often through its gaze.

‘Covering up’ may essentially represent a refusal to be consumed by France’s (neo) colonial patriarchy. If only symbolically. Anyone who believes the act of wearing a hijab or Burka or Burkini for most Muslim women constitutes an act of submission, should really reflect on  their assumptions. I would argue quite the opposite. Contrary to what the mainstream narrative may be or what white feminists may choose to posit. Psychically, one may argue that French Muslim women are in fact fiercely resisting and holding onto their independence in a country with very, very dodgy boundaries indeed. France needs to develop resources to be able to exist independently from the colonial subject. Currently, it cannot do so. Neither psychologically nor economically. It is France who fears independence and liberation, it is not French Muslim women.

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Why I no longer argue about racism

These days I rarely challenge white people who dispute matters related to white privilege, oppression or racism. I simply let them be. Often, this means letting them feel intellectually superior and comfortable in their uncritical notions of objectivity. It is not because I could not debunk their naive rationalism and sometimes plainly illogical arguments. But…the emotional labour is really not worth it. And, there are simply too many more important things I must do with my time and energy. Life is short. I do not intend on wasting another single moment of it entertaining bigotry dressed as reason. 

I no longer challenge white people who dispute white privilege because I really don’t feel the need. I don’t feel I need to convince anyone when it comes to matters of my subjugation or make a case that white privilege is my oppression. I do not seek to change people’s mind. Some have a hard time understanding this… arguing would be making my existence and my lived reality subject to agreement, disagreement or approval from those whose very existence and sense of self, is still rooted in the erasure of the violence they inflict upon me. I do not need for people to agree that it hurts to know that it hurts. It is enough that I feel that it does. Life is short. I have no intention of denying my wounds to protect or lick someone else’s. I’ve chosen to centre my pain and that of other marginalised bodies. Have no doubt that this is a political act.

I have stopped challenging people who deny oppression because inter-rater reliability is really not necessary for me to accept the validity of my lived experience. I trust it. And, I will speak it. I’ve learnt that doing so is central to my liberation and perhaps that of others too. That it is central to carving out spaces where I can simply exist for me and not for others. Contrary to what society seeks to enforce onto me and onto those whose bodies were meant to make space for others. But life is short. And I want some space. We need to breathe too. There’s enough room for us all.

If I was to seek to evidence that my lived experience is legitimate, I would simply find myself constantly dragged into a battle of will and of power. I would sink into a world of violent denial or hostility where the only possible way out would be accepting that those who have no notion of what it is to live in a racialised & gendered body, have equal, if not better apprehension, of reality. Since there is only one reality, theirs. I would need to accept being schooled on the inaccuracy of my ‘perceptions’ so that the latter can be realigned more closely with a reality that is not mine, as though reality was independent of the person who experience it. And in truth, I have no time for that. I have no interest in being a perpetual child.

I no longer challenge people on racism because I know my experience will indeed eventually be framed as ‘perceptions’. And that to frame lived experience as perception is not a neutral act. It is one of the most common way marginalised and/or painful experiences are invalidated or trivialised because they are inconvenient. It is a speech act. It is a silencing act. If you doubt that, simply pay attention to whose experience is usually defined as ‘perception’ and whose become naturalised, objectivised and legitimised. In other words, what challenges the interests of dominant groups is always a matter of perception. Always.

These are the games power plays. But life is too short for silly games. And, I will not hand over the power I have to define the world and to use whatever language I see fit. I no longer argue with white people who deny racism because in a world that seeks to erase you and your experience choosing to self-define and to name your reality is imposing your existence.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.