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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