The ‘Burkini’, The Colonial Gaze and The body: A few thoughts

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 somewhat 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 between the police officers and the Muslim woman 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 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.

Muslim women who ‘cover up’ essentially refuse 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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9 comments

      1. Good morning, Guilaine. I just wanted to let you know that I shared a link to your post with my friend, Saadia, too. Hopefully, you’ll have an chance to connect. Sending my best wishes ❤

  1. Thank you for writing this. These recent incidents of Muslim women being fined or confronted by police in France are very disturbing and sickening. That such acts are carried out so confidently and casually show the degree to which colonial attitudes remain entrenched and continue to be reproduced. It’s so disgusting and despairing.

    1. Thank you, for commenting. Yes, I agree entirely. I am hopeful though that perhaps, social media and global attention may help shift things in the right direction for France, but it will take a long time. I feel so ashamed over France’s treatment of Muslim women. So very ashamed.

  2. Glad you took time to share these thoughts and perspectives. My friends feel strongly that the various forms of veil are a form of patriarchy and oppression and also parrallel to this view it as perhaps a form of stating an identity. Some of these friends are White british, french etc. others would identify themselves as muslim and/ or Black or Asian from a wide range of countries. It is a fierce debate; fear of being made lesser and limited, profoundly and subtly being invaded or demeaned are part of everyone’s reaction whether that fear is primarily from racism or sexism; so everyone struggles to speak their perspective and to hear the others. This essay is a way I can say into the debate; look read this, does this change how you see? What you can see? Can we step back from acting or even having an opinion and just feel afraid?

    1. Hi there, thank you for taking the time to comment. I think as non-Muslim women, particularly, it is important we afford Muslim women the same agency we afford ourselves. If it is our position that the decision to ‘cover up’ is influenced/dictated by patriarchy; that it is aimed at ultimately catering to men’s desire/wishes or fears; we completely negate the possibility of choice & agency (or see women’s right to observe particular religious or cultural beliefs as an extension of their oppression). Then…we need to be consistent and hold the same discourse in relation to ourselves. That is to say, we need to also accept that we, as non-Muslim women, can never exercise choice of agency in say, choosing to wear or not to wear make-up, or choosing to wear or not wear high heels or again, choosing to maintain a certain body shape/size. We need to also put our cultural/religious choices under scrutiny in terms of their origins and impact on our liberation.
      What I struggle with mostly is the inconsistencies in relation to that argument and assumptions that as a general rule, ‘western’ non-Muslim women are the only women who can exercise agency and choice in relation to their body. I find such assumptions problematic. Clearly patriarchy has far reaching influences in the way we behave and the decisions we make about our body. Possibly more than we’d like to recognise. Nonetheless, singling out Muslim women or any (non-white) group of women for that matter, as a special case/illustration of female oppression, I think is both fallacious and actually pretty bigoted. And as touched upon in the article, to me, has echoes of colonialism, saviourism and ethnocentrism. This is also clearly being used to marginalise, other and legitimise violence and humiliation. This is a serious concern. The absurdity of using violence and oppression as a way to eradicate purported violence and oppression is another matter altogether.
      Wether we can really ever exercise choice within patriarchal systems if of course, the million dollar question. I do not think however, this question only applies to Muslim women…and it should not exclusively be framed around them. Not saying this is what your/your friends response imply only that it is all too frequently implied/expressed.
      Hope this makes sense.
      Guilaine

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