We have written often on this blog about the current tendency for feminists in Europe to ally with extreme-right Islamophobes, supposedly in the name of women’s rights. But this phenomenon of feminists allying with the extreme right is, naturally, not restricted to Europe: it exists all over the western world. Here we have a strong example in this article by prominent Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy, in which she minimises and excuses some fairly extraordinary racism on the basis that it is a joke, and that – somehow – attacking an individual who shared a link to the “joke” is a distraction from criticising China.
First point: if the design is indeed a joke, it’s not a very good one.
Murphy’s article concerns a shirt with a design of a Chinese takeaway box and chopsticks flying away on bat wings, with “no thank you” written on the sleeve in a faux-Asian font. At a time when people of Asian appearance are the victims of greatly increased levels of racism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t find this particularly funny. In fact, I would say it is not so much a joke as an incitement to violence.
I can’t help but wonder if Murphy would react in the same way if the “joke” in question was a sexist joke. In fact, feminists spend a great deal of time arguing against various men’s excuses that such-and-such a sexist statement they made was “just a joke”. But when the “joke” in question is racist, oh, no problems here.
Double standards with respect to sexism and racism is a common characteristic of feminists who adopt right-wing, racist rhetoric.
Second point: criticism of a racist shirt design and a refusal to criticise China are two different things.
Murphy asks whether the reaction to the shirt came about because “joking about or criticizing China is off-limits at this point, solely because China is not a Western country?” She then mentions that China is “on its way to becoming a major superpower that dictates much of our economy in Canada and the US”, and the authoritarianism of the ruling CCP (Chinese Communist Party). In so doing, Murphy falls into a common trap for feminists who ally with the extreme right (often seen in feminist rhetoric against the Islamic headscarf): that of ignoring the very great differences in power relations within western countries, in which racialised people are an oppressed minority, and countries in which racialised minorities originate, in which they are (often) the majority.
With her argument, she implies that criticising the racist shirt is akin to some kind of politically-correct, moral panic-inspired refusal to allow any critique of China whatsoever. Which is insane. There is certainly a place for critique of China – though I certainly would not trust Murphy to make it – but the main problem with the shirt has nothing to do with that. In China, (Han) Chinese are the majority of the population and hold power. In North America and other western countries, people of Chinese origin and/or Asian appearance constitute oppressed minorities, victims of centuries of official and unofficial discrimination and racism that continues today. These people are currently experiencing significant increases in violence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short, the point is not that China’s domestic or foreign policy should never be criticised, it is that the shirt that is the supposed subject of Murphy’s article has immediate negative effects on people of Asian appearance in North America and other western countries.
Finally, I wonder, has supposedly-feminist Murphy (and the rest of the numerous other “feminists” who choose to ally with the extreme right) forgotten that half of people of colour are women of colour? Half of the people affected by increased racism against people of Asian appearance in the wake of this pandemic are women. In this article, Murphy effectively allies herself with a random white man, “a man with a family to feed” (a nice patriarchal understanding of men’s role in society!), over all of these women. How very feminist. And how very feminist, too, to see so many supposedly feminist groups and individuals liking and sharing her article. At least now we women of colour know where we stand.
Racism is not some abstract entity that exists out in the ether; it has concrete effects on people’s lives. We do not sanction these effects on any people, male or female, but as anti-racist feminists our key constituents are racialised women. Both the shirt and Murphy’s article contribute to legitimating violence against them.
Edited to add a point in the penultimate paragraph. Thanks to F to pointing this out.
The murder of two people in a terrorist attack in the East German city of Halle broke into the news cycle in the early afternoon of last Wednesday, 9th October. A man armed with an assault rifle attempted to break into a synagogue, eventually killing a woman outside, before throwing a grenade into a nearby Jewish cemetery in an attempt at grave desecration. The attack took place on Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The attacker then fled, frustrated at not having murdered more people (we hear him calling himself a “loser” intermittently on the captured footage, interspersed with insulting foreigners and denying the holocaust). He then drove to a nearby Turkish kebab shop where he killed another person. Targeting Jewish people and another ethnic minority, one likely to be Muslim, within the same hour.
The admitted neo-fascist published an online manifesto before the attack took place. The manifesto showed he had originally planned an attack on a mosque or left-wing social centre. Eventually, he opted for Halle’s synagogue, because “Jews control the government in Germany” and so had to be attacked as the primary “organised enemy”.
Like the New Zealand mosque shooter, the assailant broadcast his attack on the live streaming website Twitch. These violent men are part of a recent history of copycat terrorist atrocities that mirror one another, with Norway’s Anders Breivik an obvious key inspiration (Breivik also conducted killings with the purpose of promoting a political manifesto grounded in Nazi ideology).
As widely reported, the video has the Halle attacker voicing the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ theory: that feminism has led to declining birth rates in the West, resulting in non-European immigration (Muslim especially) and that this has been organised by pro-multicultural Jews to overwhelm the ‘white race’. The political Left is viewed as a complicit sponsor of this project, which supposedly plots the downfall of white Western dominance. The theory was conceived and brought to prominence by French writer Renaud Camus and articulates the idea, supported by far-right groups, of an attempt at ‘white genocide’.
It is abundantly clear who the targets of the fascist rightwing are: ethnic and religious minorities, alongside women (let’s not forget the key indicator of a man who will take up weapons to kill strangers is a history of domestic violence). The range of targeted groups suggests the broad unity of resistance we have to construct.
The latest figures collected by the German government show 90% of anti-semitic incidents are the responsibility of the resurgent far right within the country. A major Pew opinion survey in Europe found that it is among those with islamophobic views that anti-semitism is also most concentrated.
Yet, it is often Muslim populations who are identified by the mainstream media as the core of anti-semitism within Europe: again, focusing on migrant populations within Europe as the cause of Europe’s problems. In a similar incident across the Atlantic last May, a 19-year-old targeted a woman attending a synagogue in San Diego, killing her, injuring a little girl and the Shul’s rabbi. Yet, in its aftermath last summer the Trump administration spent more time accusing Democrat Senator Ilhan Omar – a Muslim who wears the headscarf and former refugee from Somalia – of anti-semitism than looking at who actually commit anti-semitic murders: white men with histories of violence against women.
Meanwhile the Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s equivalent to France’s Front National) seek to hide their own fascist components by claiming that Muslim minorities are responsible for anti-semitism, and also argue that misogyny is an import from non-European immigrants. This formation is not restricted to the political margins, with the same sentiments echoed by the likes of German interior minister Horst Seehofer.
Far-right bile targeting Muslims and Jewish populations alike swirls around online, with popular sites like 4chan full of competitively edgy racist memes, alongside the incredible rise of online multiplayer battle royale gaming (where the goal is to kill everyone), creating a kind of “gamification” backdrop for fascist violence. This is also taking place offline in real life, at an organisational and institutional level, from the media to social commentators, politicians and political groups downwards.
The individual violent men who take up arms to attack mosques and synagogues have their context readymade for them. It is not a coincidence that the New Zealand mosque shooter told viewers to “subscribe to Pewdiepie”, a reference to Youtube’s most popular creator, who himself has insulted other players with the ‘n-word’ during live streams of first-person shooter games. It is not a coincidence that at a time when the West’s leftist political forces are in disarray, barely able to distinguish between racism and fascism, with many tarring the liberally economic Trump as a national socialist, that the far-right continues unchallenged. If there is any sense of urgency to organise against far-right elements in Europe it will require a decisive left that reconstructs itself across former lines, willing to work across party divides and political divisions, sweeping away sectarian groups like Anti-Fa and replacing them with mass coalitions.
As fascism is yet another of men’s social systems – one drawn along totalising nationalistic and ethnic lines, and invented only in the last century – then it is potentially women’s radical politics that have the greatest prospect for disruption. If opposition to nationalist categories and to the racialisation of minority groups were put at the heart of feminist political practice we might find a revolutionary new way of not just collectively resisting fascism, but getting out from under men’s oppressive sexual and racist regimes altogether.
This article was written by guest author Jen Izaakson.
Sara Farris’ 2017 book In the name of women’s rights: the rise of femonationalism asks a question that has perplexed many of us, and which concerns us particularly here at FINT: why do certain feminists “converge” with right wing, nationalist politicians on the issue of Muslim (and other non-western migrant) women’s rights? This leads to a number of related questions: why does gender equality feature so prominently in the rhetoric of current European nationalist parties (when it did not do so in the past)? And why do certain well-known feminists support this rhetoric, despite its seemingly obvious racism? Farris argues, too, that these two groups of actors (nationalists, and certain feminists) are joined by a third group: neoliberals – in other words, this political rhetoric has an important economic function.
Of course, these groups are not concerned with gender equality for all women – it is particularly, even exclusively, Muslim women, and by extension other migrant women in Europe, who are at issue here. According to Farris, Muslim women are portrayed in this ideology (which she dubs “femonationalism”) as the ultimate victims, and Muslim men as the ultimate oppressors. Looking at the Netherlands, France and Italy, she demonstrates that the policies of nationalist groups on other issues related to gender equality are strictly conservative, aiming to reinforce women’s place in the family. Neoliberals, she argues, are more interested in using the presence of migrant women populations in Europe to support their neoliberal capitalist projects. And finally, she shows that the actions of these feminists actually contribute to racialised inequality among women – whether they intend to or not.
Farris argues that the convergence of interests of these three groups in their rhetoric on Muslim women’s rights is underpinned by a shared notion of western supremacy. It is this unshakeable, or at least unquestioned, belief in the superiority of western culture that allows nationalists and feminists to claim that gender relations in the west are more advanced than in Muslim-majority countries, that Muslim women are the quintessential victims who must be rescued and taught these values for their proper assimilation into European societies, and that Muslim men must be excessively policed and criminalised because of the danger they pose to women and European society more generally. This is essentially the argument of the book’s first chapter.
The second chapter argues that contemporary European nationalist parties should not be understood as populist. As at several other points throughout the book, Farris shows skilfully how this analysis is essentially gender-blind. In this case, it is because the concept of populism does not help understand why nationalist parties give so much attention to gender equality. She argues instead for the use of an analysis grounded in the historical context of decolonisation, and for the use of notions of racialised sexism and the sexualisation of racism.
The third chapter focuses on “civic integration policies”, which are policies introduced by national governments to “integrate” newly arrived migrants. Such policies might include, for example, taking language classes, passing an exam with questions about national culture (the Netherlands), or signing a contract committing to undertake various activities (France). Farris shows that gender equality and women’s rights are the central values that migrants are supposed to internalise in these programs. She argues that the prominence of these issues in civic integration policies is not a sign of liberalism and support for women’s rights more generally, but actually evidence of their nationalism and racism. These programs are also sexist, as they generally highlight migrant women’s central role in their families and communities (with, naturally, the inseparably racist element in the implication that it is women who will “educate” their families and communities in western values). There is also, however, an apparent contradiction in this insistence on women’s place in the home with the insistence on the importance of migrant women entering the workforce.
This leads into the economic aspect of femonationalism, which is discussed in the fourth and fifth chapters. Farris argues (correctly I think) that the economic role of femonationalist rhetoric has largely been overlooked. Essentially, her argument is that the implementation of these policies – including by feminists – is directed towards funnelling non-western migrant women into the care and domestic sectors. This is a major contradiction for feminists because the fight to end the restriction of women to these private-sphere activities has been one of the major struggles of the feminist movement. Farris suggests that this contradiction comes about due to the historical ways in which feminists have seen paid work as the sole path to liberation for women, placing it in opposition to social reproduction (a term referring the to tasks required to maintain life on a daily and generational basis, like cleaning, cooking, childcare, etc.)
The fifth and final chapter emphasises how the double standard of non-western migrant women as “victims to be rescued” and men as the “dangerous Other” follows a political-economic logic. Migrant women are portrayed as victims because it is to the advantage of neoliberal, nationalist governments to have them around on a permanent basis as a source of cheap labour for social reproduction. Farris thus argues that migrant women in Europe now constitute a “regular army of labour”, and this is why they are portrayed as potentially rescuable, redeemable and able to be integrated into European society.
This situation is also to the advantage of some western feminists because, in the absence of state provision of collective services, access to cheap domestic labour and childcare allows them – and middle- and upper-class women generally – to be active in the workforce and public sphere in a similar way to men. Farris argues however that such a goal is anti-feminist: after all, it is essentially advocating that society’s dirty work should be undertaken by poor brown women, to free up rich white women to do whatever they like.
Farris’ analysis is provocative and fascinating, and certainly made me think about the relationship between rhetoric and practice, the ways in which ideology functions to support the material organisation of society. Her analysis of the tensions and contradictions between feminism and anti-racism is skillful and insightful, and her insight into the historical evolution of this rhetoric and its concrete manifestation in civic integration policies is highly valuable.
However, I have a few questions. Most importantly, her argument relies on the idea that Muslim women be portrayed as victims; but, in France at the moment this idea is barely present at all. Instead, Muslim women who wear the headscarf, niqab, or other covering (and by extension, I would argue, any woman of Muslim cultural background), are almost systematically portrayed as aggressors – we can mention, for example, the attacks on Mennel Ibtissem and Maryam Pougetoux in 2018 (read our analysis here), not to mention the wide range of less prominent attacks that white people frequently inflict on any woman who appears public wearing Islamic covering. In addition, and particularly importantly in relation to Farris’ thesis, Muslim women are beginning to be seen as poor carers, as Houria Bentouhami has argued. This was clear, for example, in the recent “Baby Loup” case: a woman was fired from her job as a childcare worker when she started wearing the headscarf.
While vestiges of the representation of Muslim women as victims to be saved are present in France, it is by no means the dominant idea currently, which would seem to some extent to contradict Farris’ arguments. Is this representation of Muslim women as aggressors an evolution in public rhetoric on migrant women, and if so, how does this evolution fit in with the political-economic interests Farris identifies?
Despite my questions, this book remains a remarkably clear and insightful analysis into the convergence of nationalists and feminists with neoliberal economic interests, in the service of racism and sexism.
 This was clear in France for Marine Le Pen of the far right party Front National, who feminist group Les Glorieuses found to be by far the worst candidate on women’s rights in the 2017 presidential elections. Le Pen voted almost systematically against or abstained from voting for every proposition in favour of women’s rights in the European parliament in the period they studied (38 out of 43 propositions since 2004).
Once again, France’s treatment of Muslim women is in the spotlight. In the last few weeks, a scandal has erupted over women wearing burkinis to swim at a public pool in the town of Grenoble, defying the bylaws that forbid it. The women, who are being called “Muslim Rosa Parks”, began campaigning on this issue in May with a petition to the Grenoble City Council. The Alliance Citoyenne de l’Agglomération Grenobloise, of which the women are part, published on its facebook page:
“To defend the freedom of religion and their freedom to cover or not cover their bodies, they take inspiration from Rosa Parks and have decided to pursue a campaign of civil disobedience… as a heatwave approaches, they challenge Mayor of Grenoble Eric Piolle’s proposal to put off until a later date the opening of public swimming pools to Muslim women wearing the headscarf.”
It should be noted that the banning of the burkini was ruled illegal and discriminatory by both the French Conseil d’Etat (“council of state”, equivalent to the supreme court for administrative justice) in 2016 and the “défenseur des droits” (a position similar to that of a human rights commissioner or ombudsman) in 2018. The town of Grenoble, along with several others, has used particular wording to get around these rulings in their local bylaws.
This affair did not come out of nowhere: it was preceded by the “Burkini Affair” of July-August 2016. Beginning with the mayor of Cannes, officials in 31 French communes banned the wearing of the burkini on public beaches. Like any issue involving the covering of Muslim women’s bodies in France, it quickly became a scandal, resulting in an extraordinary outpouring of commentary. On August 26 of the same year, the Conseil d’Etat ruled that the measures were illegal, calling them a “serious and illegal attack on fundamental freedoms”.
The direct effect of the 2016 burkini bans was to discriminate against Muslim women and oblige them to change their clothing preferences or leave public areas. This was achieved via force and intimidation: a photo of three policeman standing over a racialised woman sitting on the beach as she removed a long-sleeved shirt went around the world, resulting in widespread condemnation.
The bans appeared to be applied not only to specifically religious clothing, but to any clothing that covered the arms and legs, as long as it was worn on the beach by women presumed to be Muslim/North African.
The laws went so far that their ridiculousness seemed clear to many. As a result, some of us dared hope that the burkini affair might signify a turning point in mainstream feminist support for Muslim women, which generally hovers close to zero. Thanks, no doubt, to much behind-the-scenes work, the mainstream feminist organisation Osez Le Féminisme (not known to be strong on anti-racism) released a statement condemning the measures. Some others known for their obsessive anti-headscarf stance wrote somewhat confused articles which were at least less condemnatory than usual. It seemed that, finally, some progress had been made.
How naive we were.
Three years later in 2019, another burkini affair, but this time, not even lukewarm support from feminists: it seems that the intervening three years of hatred poured out against Muslim women in France has eliminated the brief glimmer of empathy we sensed in 2016. [We would like to add, in stupefaction: when is it ever a feminist position to argue that women – no matter which women – must remove clothing in public and reveal themselves to the male gaze?]
This time, however, the arguments have shifted somewhat. As usual, the women are being painted as Islamic extremists who want to convert the whole country rather than simply as women who want to go to the pool on a 45 degree day; but this time, perhaps because all the usual arguments have been worn out, an obsession with hygiene is in evidence. Never mind that public pools are already full of urine – they are heavily chlorinated for a reason! – but burkinis have somehow been decided to be less hygienic than other bathing suits.
This is a strange argument since the burkini (unlike board shorts) is not worn outside the swimming pool, but is a bathing suit like any other. It is made of the same fabric and women put it on when they arrive at the pool. There is no obvious reason why it should be less hygienic than any other bathing suit; accordingly, this argument was debunked by the défenseur des droits (as was another argument, that the burkini is supposedly unsafe because in the case of cardiac arrest, it must be cut open). Indeed, this argument recalls the extremely common and extremely racist implication that non-white people have poor standards of hygiene. Perhaps, in the absence of any real argument against the burkini, its attackers are simply falling back on disgraceful, colonial-era stereotypes?
Finally, we are unsurprised to note that, as is usual in a controversy over Muslim women’s bodies in France, one response of choice is that of sexual libertarianism. A facebook group calling itself “Les jours heureux” (Happy days) has created an event calling for “the constitution of a green, secular citizen’s movement” in which all “citizens attached to Republican values” should “get naked” in front of the “burkini-wearing commandos”. Women wanting to cover their bodies is always a problem for those who advocate for “French Republican values”, whether they come from the extreme right, the left, or from supposed feminists. These people prefer – nay, demand – women to be sexually willing and available at all times. The obvious response to women wanting to cover up, then, is to sexually assault them by forcing them to look at men’s naked genitals.
Meanwhile, as a collective of French feminists remind us all with an open letter in Le Monde on July 4, 75 women have so far been killed by their male partners in France in 2019. Pointing out the systematic failures to help women victims of violence at every level, the collective calls on the government to make immediate changes. In the “pays des droits de l’homme” (homeland of the rights of man), where (white) women are a so liberated and where men are so obsessively preoccupied with the freedom of (Muslim) woman, one woman is killed by her current or former parter every 2.5 days. While local governments and the media obsess about a bathing suit, women are literally dying.
This Friday 15 March a white, male terrorist killed 50 people and injured 50 more in a terrorist attack at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant has been charged for the event. Before the event Tarrant posted on the internet a number of images of his firearms and a link to a 73-page manifesto explaining his actions. He also filmed the attack and uploaded it to the internet.
This attack has had direct and terrible consequences on its victims, and their families, friends and communities. We offer our condolences and support to these people. We also would like to emphasise that this attack has effects on Muslim communities – particularly in Western countries – worldwide, and particularly in New Zealand and Australia. Many members of these communities are grieving this attack, and living in heightened fear of increased attacks against them in the aftermath and into the future. We extend our support and solidarity to these communities.
Like all such attacks, the actions of Tarrant and his accomplices took place within a web of white supremacy and male supremacy, but this fact is rarely recognised in mainstream media coverage and analysis. In this article, we extend this understanding, using elements found in media reports to make a number of points:
Extremist and mainstream racism are closely intertwined
White supremacist/male supremacist men take inspiration from one another, learn from one another and see themselves as a group
Such ideology inevitably emerges from the desire to control women’s bodies, and particularly racialised women
The Australian context
As an Australian citizen, Tarrant likely grew up immersed in Australia’s particular brand of settler-colonial racism. Australia is a country built upon the genocide of Aboriginal people beginning from the arrival of British settlers in 1788. This genocide continues today through government policies that enforce poverty and disadvantage among Aboriginal people and continue the destruction of culture and the process of genocide, for example through the continued removal of children from Aboriginal families.
Australia also has a long history of racism towards non-white immigrants, beginning in competition among workers from China and the Pacific Islands in the nineteenth century. During the second world war, then-prime minister John Curtin enunciated this prejudice clearly, saying “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race”, a phrase stunning not only in its rejection of non-white immigration but also in its erasure of the genocide of Australia’s first peoples. This “White Australia policy” was only fully dismantled in the 1970s.
Today, racism towards migrants and refugees is frequently expressed in public discourse. Politicians such as Pauline Hanson, who initially became famous in the 1990s for her opposition to Asian immigration, have now taken on Muslims as their target of choice. Hanson, who is also known for calling for a Royal Commission into Islam and her opposition to the labelling of halal food, in 2017 wore a burqa into the Senate in a stunt designed to advocate for its ban in Australia.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, the even more right-wing politician Fraser Anning released a statement claiming that the shootings were the result of “the growing fear within our community, in both Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence.” Citing a bible passage, he called Islam a “violent ideology” and claimed that it is different from other religions, compared it to fascism – despite the fact that he himself called for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration (a euphemism for genocide used by the Nazis) in 2018.
Extreme-right inspiration from France
Tarrant was obsessed by France
In his manifesto, Tarrant explains that a trip to Europe in 2017 was a “catalyst” for his thought, and in particular the French presidential elections that took place that year. The journalist Doan Bui, who read Tarrant’s manifesto, shows how he was obsessed with France, and that some of his political ideas and the idea for the attack were shaped by his experiences there. In the manifesto, Tarrant presents himself as “a White, European in heart and blood”, and his twitter banner photo featured one of the women victims of the Nice attacks in 2016.
He presents right-wing French president Emmanuel Macron as an internationalist capitalist, “egalitarian, without nationalist beliefs” and extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen as a “timid nationalist”. He says that Le Pen’s defeat in the 2017 elections plunged him into “despair”. He writes: “[w]hen I arrived in France […] I saw that all the invaders were there. The remaining French people were often single, old or without children, while the immigrants were young with big families.”
The “Great Replacement” theory
The manifesto reveals that Tarrant identifies with the racist and misogynist theories spread by extreme right and fascist movements in France, as shown by its title, “The Great Replacement”. The theory of the “grand remplacement”, named after the title of a book by Renaud Camus authored by Renaud Camus, rests on the idea that European peoples are being “replaced” by populations from countries of the global South, and talks about a “genocide of Europeans via substitution”.
These theories are racist, xenophobic and colonialist. They are underpinned by a reversal of the historical process of colonialism which is in complete opposition to reality. It is western colonialist countries that are responsible for the enslavement and genocide of very many peoples, the massive theft of resources from colonised countries and the organisation of an international system whose aim is to exploit and oppress countries of the global South.
At some point during his trip to France, Tarrant visited a war cemetery. He wrote: “it was there that I decided to act, through violence. That I would fight against the invaders myself.” The fact that Tarrant links his obsession with the fear of invasion to a war cemetery in France is significant. Did Tarrant identify with the obsession to “save Europe” as was the case during the world wars? Further, certain war cemeteries in France are the burial ground for thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died there during the first and second world wars. The first world war in particular has taken on a particular role in the Australian nationalist vision of the country’s history. It is seen as a coming-of-age moment, in which Australia became truly independent from its British fatherland.
From the extreme to the mainstream
Extremists – such as Anning and Hanson in Australia, and Camus and his extreme-right followers in France – are terrifying and highly visible. But the fact is that their access to political power and the spreading of their ideas is only possible in a national climate in which racism is generally tolerated. Australia is a country founded on the genocide of an entire people, while France, as a former colony, was a perpetrator of similar genocides in a number of other countries. These are countries founded on white supremacism.
It should be unsurprising, then, that racism is strongly present in mainstream culture in every western country. This mainstream racism is actually more dangerous than extreme-right racism because it is seen as normal and legitimate. The process is cyclical: extreme-right racism is enabled by the existence of mainstream racism, but right-wing extremism also enables this mainstream racism by making it appear mild in comparison and therefore harmless and acceptable, while providing a way for mainstream commentators to pretend not to be racist by condemning the extremists.
Mainstream racism in Australia
Numerous Australian politicians are currently doing exactly this by calling for the censure of Fraser Anning. Meanwhile, it is official Australian government policy to imprison people legally seeking asylum in impoverished neighbouring countries. Not coincidentally, these asylum seekers are not white. This extraordinarily racist, xenophobic and deeply inhumane policy – which is also illegal under international law – is supported by both major political parties. Another recent example is the trend that has emerged for politicians to invent “African gangs” who supposedly perpetrate non-existent crime sprees, in attempts to instrumentalise a “get tough on crime” approach to win elections.
Another aspect of mainstream Australian racism potentially illuminates the fact that Tarrant was moved to act violently while visiting a French war cemetery. WWI has become sacralised in Australian public discourse. In recent years in particular, ANZAC day – which commemorates soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – has been transformed into a massive annual injunction to nationalism and patriotism. Critique of this phenomenon is not tolerated: in 2015, a journalist for one of Australia’s public broadcasters was fired for a series of tweets making this argument, including one saying: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.”
In a second example, on ANZAC day 2017, the Sudanese-Australian anti-racist activist Yassmin Abdul-Magied made a facebook post saying “Lest we forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)” [Manus and Nauru are the locations of two of Australia’s offshore detention centres for asylum seekers.] The torrent of hatred she received over the following months was so extreme that she ended up leaving the country.
Mainstream racism in France
In France, too, the racism of the extreme right is fed and complemented by the racism of the mainstream. A prominent example of this mainstream racism, as we have frequently writtenabout on this blog, is the extreme hatred of women from Muslim cultural backgrounds, particularly those who wear the headscarf. Discrimination towards these women is legitimated even by law, with the 2004 law banning headscarfs in schools and the 2010 law banning niqab in public places.
This Muslim-hating, racist and misogynist environment encouraged by French state politics manifests in the multiplication of acts of violence against Muslim people, and particularly women and girls who wear headscarves. Women and girls suffer aggressions and discrimination in public space, at school, when trying to engage in politics, in shops, in the job market, in the world of music, in official government ceremonies, and in an endless list of other situations and locations.
Such events are a daily occurrence in France, demonstrating the dangerous consequences of mainstream racism. The recent shooting in New Zealand exists on a continuum with these everyday racist aggressions. The perpetrators of mainstream racism bear just as much responsibility for this shooting as do right-wing extremists.
Finally, this ambient racism is also present in the way information about terrorist attacks is reported. In the case of the Christchurch attack – and as is systematically the case with white terrorists – the term “terrorism” was not used straight away. And, in the aftermath of the attack, various western mainstream media services immediately began diffusing childhood photos of the mass murderer, or from his personal life (travel photos etc.): even in the case of terrorists, we can see a tendency to humanise white murderers in comparison to non-white.
Beyond Australia and France: international links through racism and misogyny
Tarrant’s influences were not limited to Australia and France, but demonstrate that he sees himself as part of a truly global network of white supremacist, male supremacist men. In his manifesto, he claimed to be inspired by a number of other white supremacist mass murderers, notably Norwegian Anders Breivik, who Tarrant claimed “gave his blessing” for the project. Another notable name appearing – this time written in white marker on one of his guns – is that of Alexandre Bissonnette, perpetrator of the Quebec City mosque terrorist attack in 2017.
Tarrant thus consciously situates himself in a tradition of white supremacist and male supremacist action. Mass shooting is a practice overwhelmingly perpetrated by white men (from 1982 to late 2018, 104 out of 107 mass shootings in the US were perpetrated by men, and 60 were perpetrated by white people). What’s more, these men very often have a history of violence against women in some form. While we do not yet know enough about Tarrant to know if he was a perpetrator of violence specifically against women, the ideas enunciated in his manifesto and in those of his heroes are fundamentally misogynist. Again, this should not be surprising: white supremacy and male supremacy typically go hand in hand, and white male terrorists are linked not only by their racism but by their hatred of women.
The “Great replacement” theory is fundamentally misogynist
Generally speaking, theories such as the “great replacement” are intrinsically misogynist, because they are based on and focus on birthrates, and thus on women’s bodies. This obsession with birthrates (which are claimed to be too low for white women and too high for non-white women) is actually an obsession with controlling women’s bodies, and particularly the bodies of women from migrant backgrounds and their children, following a broader racist and colonialist pattern.
Historically, these are not simply extreme-right ideas, but policies put in place by western countries in colonial contexts – notably by France (forced abortions and sterilisations performed on black women in Reunion) and by Australia (forced abortions and sterilisations performed on Aboriginal women and the forced adoption of Aboriginal children). Such policies continue today, albeit often in less obvious forms. This racist, colonialist and misogynist obsession is at the centre of Tarrant’s motivation, as shown in the opening words of his manifesto: “It’s the birthrate! It’s the birthrate!”. This word appears at least twenty times, while the word “fertility” appears 24 times.
White supremacists are also male supremacists
Breivik also published a manifesto (entitled “A European Declaration of Independence”) before committing his terrorist attacks on 22 July 2011. He wrote that feminism and multiculturalism had led to a “feminisation of European culture” and had reduced European men to an “emasculate[d]… touchy-feely sub-species.” He believed that feminism made European women into traitors because they no longer reproduced and thus did not produce enough European men to resist what he called “the Muslim invasion”; similar kinds of racist and misogynist ideas as those expressed by Tarrant. Breivik concluded that the fate of European men depended on their ability to resist feminism.
This woman-hatred was also present with Bissonnette, the white supremacist terrorist who killed 6 people in the attack on a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017. His internet search history revealed that he was obsessed by two feminist groups and one Muslim student group at Laval University in Quebec. He also frequently searched for information about the “nuisances” caused by feminism, and about Marc Lépine, the terrorist who killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989.
This misogynist obsession can perhaps be seen most clearly in the case of Alek Minassian, the terrorist who killed 10 people – a majority of them women – on April 23rd in Toronto after having written on facebook that “the Incel Rebellion has already begun”, and making reference to Elliot Rodger, another “Incel” who killed 6 and injured 14 in an attack in California on 23rd May 2014.
These white supremacist terrorist attacks take place in a particularly nationalist, racist and misogynist context in western countries.
The fascist, racist and misogynist theories such as that of the “great replacement” are spread within national contexts in which Muslim-hatred and other forms of racism are tolerated in the mainstream and legitimated by law.
The self-declared motives of white supremacist terrorists are consistently underpinned by the desire to control women and to have sexual access to their bodies.
The aim of these acts is to restore a white and male domination that these men consider to be under attack.
The men who perpetrate these attacks consciously make references to and links with those who came before, identifying as part of a genealogy or group with the clear aim of creating a common political project.
Only when these realities – true not only of the Christchurch attack but of all white supremacist/male supremacist terrorist attacks – are recognised, can steps be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
A campaign against sexual harassment on public transport, an ad for an action movie and a prize-winning poem.
Three posters in the Parisian metro in 2018, apparently unconnected. Yet, they summarise dominant thought as it is imposed on us in three clear steps. They make clear how dominant, white, bourgeois men impose their vision of what constitutes male violence, and who perpetrates it (spoiler: it is never them).
Poster no. 1: the sexual harassment prevention campaign (March 2018)
There is an enormous amount of sexual harassment on public transport in Paris and the surrounding area. A 2015 study conducted in Paris and two nearby regions found that 100% of female public transport users had experienced sexual harassment or assault on public transport at least once in their life.
In March 2018, a sexual harassment prevention campaign was launched by the Ile de France region, the SNCF and the RATP (the two companies providing public transport in Paris and its surrounds). Except that, in this campaign, the perpetrators were represented as… animals. And, in particular, they were represented as animals that are perceived as being savage, dangerous and living far away from Paris. For example, this image:
What are the messages communicated by this image, and thus by the campaign?
Women are attacked when they are alone in places that are dark and far away. The message is that attacks occur in dark places in which a woman is lost. This recalls stereotypes about rape, which supposedly never occurs except when the rapist is a stranger (and never a white man) in dark places. In reality, the majority of rapists are known to the victim, and rape most often takes place in locations familiar to her (her home or the homes of people she knows).
Men are not the perpetrators. In this poster, the perpetrator is an enormous shark, apparently getting ready to attack the woman. In the other posters from the campaign, a bear or a wolf takes the place of the shark: animals considered to be savage predators, dangerous to humans. The message is thus: men are not perpetrators, and animals are dangerous.
It is the woman’s fault. The victim is presented as prey, afraid, without any means to defend herself. Not only have the perpetrators been disappeared, but further, it is the woman’s responsibility to deal with the fact that she has been victim of assault, and to raise the alarm (accompanied by an additional measure of guilt-tripping along the lines of “women don’t report enough, so there are more and more assaults”).
I don’t think that these messages will help women feel safe, nor will they make men question or stop their aggressive behaviour. And, by representing a sexual assault by an animal attacking a woman, there is little chance that witnesses will recognise situations of misogyny and racism, because this is not what has been presented as an assault. As my friend J said:
“I don’t understand why they put animals on the posters, the people who assault women are men.”
Representing perpetrators of sexual assault as animals means that the reality of assault is not shown. This is not a communication error, it is intentional. Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile de France region (member of the right-wing party Les Républicains) said this explicitly:
“The campaign is a bit of a shock tactic to make others experience the fear that women experience when they are taking public transport. We are not stigmatising men, we are stigmatising predators.”
So, the true aim of this campaign was to not “stigmatise” men. And to show that “not all men” are perpetrators, but only so-called “predators”. And especially not white, bourgeois men.
This campaign very quickly became the target of critique on social media; women also pointed out the ineffectiveness of the emergency number advertised, as explained by a woman victim of a sexual assault in this video (in French).
Animal protection groups also denounced the campaign. From an anti-specist perspective, the fact that the perpetrators (men) are represented as animals is highly problematic because it reinforces the idea that animals are dangerous to humans, and that killing them is acceptable and even necessary for safety.
Poster no.2: the advertising for the film “The Meg” (summer 2018)
“The Meg” is a joint US-Chinese film, which I haven’t seen and whose plot I do not know. I will not talk about the film, but only about the image displayed in the ad in the metro. The poster could have been different – it is easy to find various other promotional images the film on the internet, notably several featuring the Chinese actress Li Bingbing (李冰冰). My aim is not to criticise the film or to attribute intentions to it, but rather to examine the impact that this image and this poster has in France, in the context of the collection of other racist, misogynist and specist messages constantly hammered into us by state institutions, and particularly following the campaign against sexual harassment discussed above (poster no. 1).
In this picture, we see: a man (the British actor Jason Statham), in the water, holding a harpoon gun, confronting an enormous shark. The shark is truly gigantic, recalling the shark from the poster no.1 (the campaign against sexual harassment). It seems to be preparing itself to attack the man. He is not a defenceless victim, he is clearly going to fight the shark (and, we can safely assume, save other people as he does so). And, most importantly, the man is white.
What message is communicated by this image?
Shark = danger
White man = savior
So, joining the dots between the first poster (the anti-sexual harassment campaign) representing the perpetrator as a shark, and this poster showing a white man defending himself against a shark, the conclusion seems to be that the danger does not come from men, but from animals. And that white men are not perpetrators, but saviours.
Poster no. 3: the misogynist poem in the metro
This poem was displayed in the metro because it won a competition organised by the RATP (the state-owned public transport operator managing public transport in Paris). The poem was written by Hippolyte Bruneau, a 17-year old high school student from Neuilly-sur-Seine. The sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot ans Michel Pinçon present Neuilly-sur-Seine as a “France’s wealthiest city”, and they identify it as a “ghetto of the rich”.
In his poem, Hippolyte Bruneau describes how a man desires something that a woman has on her body (lipstick), and takes it by force, by kissing her without her consent. This is sexual assault, legitimated by the fact that the man wanted something the woman had.
This poem thus describes a sexual assault, from a man’s point of view. The point of view of a white, bourgeois man, the kind of man who wins poetry competition and many other types of competition, the kind of man whose thoughts (as stupid and violent as they may be) are always rewarded and valued.
The message communicated by this poem is that white men are never perpetrators. When a white, bourgeois man harasses or assaults a woman, it is not harassment, not assault. It is considered to be seduction, art, French exceptionalism, sexual liberation. It is not only acceptable, but rewarded and valued.
So we have seen that in the first poster, institutional forces show that perpetrators are predatory animals. According to the first and second posters, we see that white men are not “predators”, but saviours. And in the third we see that sexual assault committed by white men is not assault but romanticism or art, and that it is rewarded.
These three posters clearly show what white bourgeois men want us to think: that they are never aggressors, and that they should have access to women’s bodies.
This is why the admitted pedo-criminal* Roman Polanski is welcomed in France. Why Bertrand Cantat, well-known singer and murderer of actress Marie Trintignant, is welcomed too. Why Georges Tron was not condemned for the rapes of which he was accused, but his victims were criticised instead. Why, in January 2018, the Le Monde published the open letter signed by 100 women defending the right of white bourgeois men to assault women (as we explained in a previous article).
I think it is important to remember that in France, while sexual harassment in the street and in public transport is important and must be combated, a large proportion of harassment and assault also takes place in other places, which are less visible: at school, at work, in hospitals, in political groups, in the home… etc. And in these specific forms of assault, less visible and less criticised by institutional actors, hierarchies of power are often present (for example: employer-employee). But ruling institutions prefer to condemn street harassment and harassment in public transport in order to stigmatise certain groups of men and to reinforce their racist and colonialist policies.
I could have examined any number of other images that are constantly displayed in the metro and other public places and which convey the same kind of message. We could easily take any of the many other highly problematic advertisements that are exhibited in enormous size in public, and demonstrate their misogynist, racist, neo-colonialist, pedocriminal and/or specist nature.
Advertising and the means of communication used by institutional actors do not aim to change their systems of oppression. On the contrary, they are used to reinforce them; to reinforce the domination of white, bourgeois men. They are the ones who hold the positions of economic, political and social power; they have no reason to want that to change. The messages that they send us will always necessarily be designed to protect them, and to protect their privileges. As we said in our article analysing the Schiappa bill, we cannot rely on our oppressors to liberate us:
“Contemporary patriarchy creates a division between “good” and “bad” men. It leads women to believe that “good” men, i.e. the white, bourgeois men in power, are concerned with women’s safety. This division prevents us from seeing men as an oppressor class. And it makes us believe that some men care about us and that, even though they don’t let us make decisions for ourselves, they will try to put measures in place to protect us. On the contrary, they protect only their own interests and privileges, and their right to access the bodies of women and girls.”
On October 23rd, the United Nations Human Rights Commission found that France had violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing the niqab. The two women were prosecuted in 2012 under France’s 2010 law forbidding face-coverings in public spaces. While worded neutrally, this law was principally intended to target the wearing of Islamic face-coverings such as the niqab and burqa.
The UNHRC’s decision was based on a number of points:
That the law harmed the women’s right to manifest their religious beliefs.
That France did not adequately explain why it was necessary to prohibit face-coverings, either for security reasons (face coverings could be removed for security checks) or to facilitate “living together”
That the decision did not protect niqabi women but could result rather in confining them to their homes
The committee specified that the decision did not target secularism (laïcité in French – the French often insist that laïcité is a concept unique to France and therefore requires its own term, though it is not clear why), nor did it endorse face-coverings, which they see as a form of oppression of women. Rather, the decision arose from their conviction that “a general criminal ban [does] not allow for a reasonable balance between public interests and individual rights.”
There are many positive aspects to this decision: firstly, the outcome itself, which marks a change from similar cases in recent years which have generally found such laws (in France and other countries) to be acceptable. In addition, the full decisions include many important arguments, such as that the ban, rather than promoting gender equality, may further stigmatise Muslim women.
However, from a feminist, anti-racist and decolonial perspective there are several elements missing, most notably that France’s colonial history is barely mentioned and that the niqab is treated as an isolated patriarchal practice with no links to or similarities with western patriarchal practices that all French women commonly engage in. The decision sees niqabi women as individuals making free, unfettered choices over how to express their religious beliefs, rather than as members of multiple oppressed classes (women, racialised people, Muslims) in a context in which they make up a small minority of the population which has been targeted for hatred by the France’s government and right-wing political forces for several decades, on top of more than a century of colonial history in Algeria.*
A genuinely feminist, anti-racist and decolonial argument would go something like this.
France’s recent and less-recent history of racism and colonialism
A feminist, anti-racist and decolonial argument would recognise the context in which the 2010 law was established: it was the end-point of at least twenty years of systematic demonization of women and girls who wear the headscarf and women and girls from Muslim backgrounds more generally (the first controversy over the hijab in schools took place in 1989). The decision to pass the 2010 law (and the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools) came about as a result from pressure from the extreme right to turn an already-disadvantaged and discriminated minority into the target of widespread societal hatred, in conjunction with events such as the Gulf War (1990-1991) and the September 11 attacks (2001). The relevant context is considerably larger even than that, though – it arises from 132 years of colonisation in Algeria.
The French colonisation of Algeria began in 1830 and ended in 1962 after a bloody seven-year war of independence. During the period of colonisation, France committed countless atrocities: systematically dispossessing rural people of their land, destroying local languages and customs, devastating traditional institutions and society. 1.5 million Algerians died during Algerian War, in which rape and torture were widely used against the Algerian population.
During this period, French racism against Arabs was firmly established. Arabs were portrayed as inherently uncivilised and un-civilisable, intrinsically different from Europeans and incapable of assimilating into French society. Muslim head-coverings were seen as the ultimate symbol of this difference. Colonial fantasies about Algerian women were sexualised from very early on – women were portrayed contradictorily as either prostitutes or trapped in private subjection by oppressive men. Women’s head-coverings were seen as a symbol of the supposed oppression of Algerian women; because of this oppression, Algerian women were seen as natural allies of the French and were exhorted to join their cause. The fact that many Algerian women chose not to do this was shocking to the French. Mass veil-removing ceremonies were held during pro-French rallies and the tearing off of veils was symbolically associated with rape. Even after the war and Algerian independence, head-coverings worn by Algerian women were seen as a symbol of the country’s backwardness.
It is against this backdrop that France’s 2010 law must be understood: almost two hundred years of effort such that Arabs and French people of Arab origin are seen as inherently different, inferior, and even barbaric. Such that Arab women are seen as uniquely oppressed and subordinated by uniquely violent Arab men. And such that – in contrast – France and white French women are seen as modern and liberated, France’s particular version of patriarchy is erased, and white French men’s violence denied.
This background is not visible in the UNHRC’s decision. Taking it into account makes understanding the second point easier.
Western and non-Western harmful cultural practices
A feminist, anti-racist and decolonial decision would recognise that the niqab is one of a very large number of “harmful traditional/cultural practices” imposed on/adopted by women all over the world. It exists on a continuum of such practices that includes many commonly practiced in Western contexts, such as plastic surgery, high heels, makeup, hair removal, and so on. As Sheila Jeffreys has argued, these practices all fit the definition given by the UN of harmful traditional/cultural practices (HCPs) in that they are damaging to the health of women and girls, are performed for men’s benefit, create stereotyped roles for the sexes and are justified by tradition. The concept of HCPs was created by the UN to address practices such as forced marriage, widow burning and female genital mutilation which are not widely practiced in the West, but Jeffreys convincingly argues that many western practices should also be understood through the same lens, and that the fact that they are not understood as such is a result of western bias.
The response to this argument is often confusion, or even outrage. How can I argue that Western beauty practices are a similar kind of practice to Islamic head-coverings? I believe that this confusion or outrage emerges from a Western-centric perspective that encourages us not to critically interrogate practices that are commonly accepted in the West, and focus our condemnation on practices commonly adopted by non-Westerners. The systematic highlighting in public and feminist discourse of non-Western patriarchies – such as Algerian patriarchy – and the systematic minimisation of Western patriarchies – such as French patriarchy – means that we are less likely to apply the same level of critical reflection to western beauty practices as we are to non-western practices such as Islamic head-coverings.
Once this is understood, it can be seen that France’s 2010 law is racist because it only sanctions one HCP practiced in French society – that of wearing the niqab. It ignores the vastly more common HCPs widely practiced by women from all ethnic backgrounds in France, such as makeup, high heels, hair removal, and – less commonly, but still much more commonly than the niqab – plastic surgery. In this way, the law is also misogynist because it fails to make connections between HCPs emerging from different cultures, implying that only Muslim women are subject to patriarchal oppression and thereby fostering divisions among women.
Individualist and patriarchal legal frameworks
Because the UNHRC decision is made within an individualist human rights framework, it fails to see all women as a class whose choices to engage in HCPs are shaped by patriarchy. Women from western backgrounds who choose to wear makeup, remove their pubic hair and wear uncomfortable, sexualising clothing that limits their freedom of movement do so because their preferences are shaped by the demands of the western patriarchy in which they are immersed: for example, advertising, films, books, media all show women that they must engage in these practices if they are to receive approval under western patriarchy .
Women from Muslim cultural backgrounds who choose to wear head-coverings are also subject to pressures shaping their preferences, albeit pressures of a somewhat different kind. And this is normal because the form of patriarchy in which they are immersed is somewhat different. Women from Muslim cultural backgrounds living as a minority in western countries are further subject to pressures emerging from racism, and may choose to wear head-coverings as a form of resistance to racism: to show their allegiance to their culture of origin over that of mainstream, racist society that condemns them as backwards and barbaric.
Because the UNHRC decision is made within a patriarchal framework, it fails to see that the French government’s approach to the niqab is fundamentally about enforcing a white, western form of patriarchy which demands that women be constantly, visibly sexually available according to western patriarchal terms. Women wearing head coverings is intolerable to this form of patriarchy, which interprets it as meaning that these women are not sexually available to white men but are the property of brown men. In summary, the 2010 French law condemns one patriarchal practice occasionally engaged in by an oppressed minority in French society, and ignores a vast array of others which are much more widely practiced by the majority of French society. This is then used as a weapon against the oppressed minority, further reinforcing its perceived status as different, barbaric and uniquely patriarchal and oppressive of women.
It may seem that it is preferable to sanction one type of patriarchy than to sanction no patriarchy at all, but I don’t believe this is the case: this is because the negative effects of this law on women from Muslim cultural backgrounds in France are severe. Given this, I think it is better to sanction no patriarchy at all than to selectively sanction the patriarchy of a minority group.
Negative effects of the 2010 law on women
What are these negative effects on women from Muslim cultural backgrounds in France? As the UNHRC decision rightly recognised, one of the most likely effects is that niqabi women will stay at home rather than venture into public where they are not permitted to wear their niqab. This is the case whether the niqab has been imposed on them by force or whether they have chosen to wear it. What it means concretely is that women from an oppressed minority will have less access to public space and public services, which can only be negative. This shows that even if we assume that French lawmakers are genuinely concerned by gender equality (which I don’t think we should, given the French state’s history of anti-Arab racism and their general disinterest in women’s rights at all other times) it is a fundamentally unhelpful law because it punishes the victims of the very practice it condemns. It is positive that the UNHRC’s decision recognises this, even if implicitly.
There are many broader negative effects. Many of these involve increased violence towards and discrimination against this group (for a small selection of reports of such incidents, see here, here, here and here). This occurs partly because the law legitimises the racist views already held by much of the population, making some people feel more justified in engaging in violence or discrimination towards women wearing Islamic head-coverings than they would if the government had not officially singled out these garments as unacceptable.
In the aftermath of the 2004 law, which banned headscarf in schools only, some people nonetheless have taken the opportunity (through ignorance or racism) to discriminate against women wearing it in other contexts, even though this is perfectly legal. For example, women wearing headscarves have been refused service in banks and restaurants, forbidden from swimming, banned from accompanying their children on school excursions, discriminated against in the job market, fired from their jobs, excluded from feminist and leftist groups. They are targeted for hatred when expressing themselves in public – for example, when competing in a reality TV show, representing a student union, running for political office – with their headscarf seen as invalidating everything they have to say, even when they are speaking about their own experiences. Teachers unilaterally decided that girls who were not allowed to wear the headscarf to school should not be permitted to wear long skirts or headbands either, and in the 2016 “burkini affair” overzealous public officials targeted women for wearing body-covering clothing on beaches in summer – which courts later found to be illegal. The results of the 2010 law are likely to be similar.
More generally, this law reinforces the racism and discrimination faced by all women from Muslim backgrounds in France by contributing to dominant mainstream ideas of them as being oppressed, backwards, and so on – ideas that have continued uninterrupted from the colonisation of Algeria until the present.
This law also has negative effects on other groups. Through the government’s obsession with the oppressive nature of Islamic head-coverings, all other forms of patriarchal violence are, by implication, seen as less severe. This means that racism is increased against Muslim men as they are portrayed as uniquely oppressive, the sole perpetrators of violence in French society. The other side of the coin is the minimisation and erasure of violence perpetrated by non-Muslim men in France – that is, the large majority of male violence – making it harder for any woman victim of this violence to make her claims heard and taken seriously. Thus, the losers from this law include women and men from Muslim cultural backgrounds, all other women, and probably all non-white men due to a general contribution to racism. The only beneficiaries are white men. Progressive.
The UNHRC’s decision does not capture the large majority of these feminist, anti-racist and decolonial arguments. Even though the outcome of this legal decision is positive, the argument used to get there is important because it defines how the issue is understood: not just who is considered to be in the wrong, but why they are considered to have done wrong and therefore what kind of behaviour is tolerated by society. In this sense, while the UNHRC’s decision is a step forward for women of colour in France, particularly those from Muslim cultural backgrounds, from a feminist, anti-racist and decolonial perspective it leaves much to be desired.
* This is not to say that niqabi women should be seen as naturally submissive and/or in need of saving by white Europeans – to do so would be to engage in a colonial discourse – but simply to establish that, like any oppressed group, their actions are shaped by the oppression of which they are victim.
A few weeks ago, I did an intensive course of Moroccan Arabic in Morocco. In my class there were two young women of Moroccan origin who had grown up in Europe and who spoke some Moroccan. The rest of the class, including myself, were academics who had studied Standard Arabic (which is quite different from Moroccan Arabic). The class was oriented towards grammar, making it harder for the Moroccan women who had never studied Arabic grammar before. In a few days, they had to learn grammatical rules that we were already familiar with, and try to link them with the spoken Moroccan they were used to. And, naturally, they had a strong emotional link with the language that the rest of us did not. Apart from myself and these two women, all the other members of the class were white.
One of our classmates, an older, white, European woman named A, consistently displayed concerning behavior. The very first thing she said to me was a racializing, sexualizing comment about my physical appearance, and her behavior later in the course similarly suggested that she looked at me in a way consistent with centuries-long traditions of sexualizing and exoticizing women of color. On one occasion she made comments suggesting that she saw feminism as a solely western phenomenon, that could not possibly exist in Morocco. In class, she often responded aggressively to the teacher’s questions, answering very quickly, speaking loudly and making it difficult for others to respond, particularly the two Moroccan women who were struggling with the teaching style. She consistently showed frustration and even contempt towards one of these women, whose difficulty was most clearly evident.
On two occasions, A tried to get me on her side. She asked how long I had studied Arabic,
emphasized that she too had studied Arabic and said that she found the pace of the class too slow. Each time, it was obvious that she wanted me to agree with her, so she could complain about the Moroccan student(s). I refused, instead saying that I thought it was important that everyone could follow.
After class on the second-last day, I made an offhand comment to the two Moroccan students (who I had become friends with) that A was annoying. We ended up having a long discussion about A’s racism. They pointed out some aspects of her behavior that I had not fully understood, and described many other incidents from her and another student that had happened when I wasn’t there. It was a relief to be able to share my experiences and analysis and build a common interpretation of what had happened with other women of color.
During the break on the final day, A tried a third time to get me to say that the class was too slow. This time I allowed my anger to show. I told her that her behavior was racist. I said that just because she was a white, western academic didn’t mean that everything had to be perfectly suited to her and that it was far more important for two young Moroccan women to learn their own language. After the break, my two friends and I walked into class together ten minutes late, clearly a unified front. For the rest of the day, A was quieter and less aggressive than usual, and at the end she quickly thanked the teacher and rushed off without speaking to us.
In my naivety, I was surprised that an academic who studies Morocco could have such
contempt and disdain towards actual Moroccans. That she could have so little understanding of or regard for the effects of colonization and racism that so often lead to
complex emotional relationships with one’s mother tongue, and how difficult it must have been for those women to be in a class with older white academics who – because of the teaching method – seemed to speak their language better than they did, and how hard they worked to keep up. What a complex mess of race, class and sex relations they were enmeshed in. How unquestionable it was for A that her own needs should come first, that the course should be perfectly tailored to her alone, that her money and her whiteness and her western-ness should mean that she should get exactly what she wanted, no matter what the consequences for others.
What was really surprising, though, was that I/we were successful in criticizing A’s racism – “successful” in that there have so far been no negative consequences for any of us. Almost every time I have spoken up about racism I have seen around me it has turned out badly (sometimes very badly) for me, for other women of color, and/or for white allies. And the same thing goes for any time I have seen another woman try to speak out about it. In this case, I felt satisfied and a little proud, and even wondering if I could have said something sooner. It is a constant balancing act for WoC – will the consequences of speaking up be worse than the actual experience of racism? Very often the answer is yes and we end up wondering if we should never have said anything, or we decide from the beginning not to speak. Usually, sometime after that we leave because we can’t stand the racism any more, and we end up isolated. Sometimes we are lucky and we manage to find other women of color who share our interests and analyses. It’s rare that we manage to tip the power balance in our favor, as we did here.
I think that the most important factor was solidarity. Although I waited until the final day to voice the analysis I had held from the start, I did not choose to ally myself along class lines with my academic colleagues – I instead chose to build solidarity with fellow women of color. Our discussion about our experiences of racism in the course let me know that we shared the same interpretation of the situation, allowed us to develop a shared analysis, and gave me the courage to speak. The teacher, a Moroccan woman, also showed solidarity by insisting on teaching the class at a pace suitable for the Moroccan students.
What this experience made me realize is that sometimes it is possible to use ambiguities in the particular set of power relations at hand. A was superior to me in both age and position, but we do not work in the same field and she has no direct power over me, making me less afraid of material consequences from criticizing her. In this language course we were both students with similar levels of ability, and my academic status gave me some legitimacy in her eyes. From a position of solidarity, I was able to use these factors to my advantage.
I grew up with unstable parents, unstable brothers and sisters, and various other unstable people around me. By “unstable”, I mean that the relationships between individuals were complicated, people’s behaviour was not always predictable, and against a backdrop of chronic depression and alcoholism, mood swings punctuated the years, every holiday, every week. With consequences that were often annoying, and sometimes very serious.
I myself did not have the option of having mood swings, being openly depressed, or of blaming others. I had the role of the seal, the bit of rubber that stops water from coming out of a joint in a pipe, that prevents leaks and floods. I had to learn to detect changes in mood, in atmosphere, the smallest spark. Because a spark could lead to an explosion.
I learned to detect, to recognise the earliest signs of inebriation, to analyse the sighs, the silences, the glances, the tension in the room, the meaning behind words that shouldn’t have been there.
Basically, I had to learn to read the unwritten subtitles. And to act, to adapt, to solve problems before they arose, if possible, or if not, afterwards.
As an adult, even though things are better now, I still suffer the consequences. I have to deal with the fact that I analyse everything several times before I act, before I say anything. I have been able to get some positive things out of this, because it is often useful to be able to analyse a situation very quickly, to notice even the smallest of details, and to act accordingly. But it is also exhausting. I spend my time wanting to fix everything, and being afraid to tell the truth, afraid of hurting my friends.
One technique that manipulators often use (and very often, they are men) is to threaten suicide. How many men have stopped women from leaving them by threatening to kill themselves? They know that a woman will do anything to avoid this outcome, and she will most likely decide to stay with him. The children who have grown up in this environment often share this fear with her.
Adult now, I fear conflict and disagreement because I am afraid that it will blow up into disaster. I prefer to take up my role of rubber seal once again rather than to say what I think to someone’s face, to take part in a debate, to take responsibility for the possibility of a conflict or disagreement. But among friends, and among feminists, we have disagreements, and we debate, and this is normal. What is not normal is to avoid conflict at all costs. Of course, disagreement must be expressed in a non-violent way, without power relations, without guilt-tripping, and without attacking other women: that is, without risk to the women who disagree.
Adult now, I have decided to no longer read the sub-titles, to no longer try to decode the frowns, the awkward silences, the brusque responses. I have decided to work on saying what I think, on expressing disagreement, on accepting well-managed conflict. Conflict is sometimes necessary to prevent a situation from completely blowing up, and to resolve problems. To allow us to move forward together.
The French parliament adopted the “Schiappa” bill against sexual violence on August 1st, 2018.
Following various waves of feminist advocacy and the #Metoo movement, translated in France as #Metoodanslavraievie (#Metoo in real life) and #Balancetonporc (#Squeal on your pig [= your aggressor]) this long-awaited law was the subject of high hopes.
Feminist activists had several demands, including:
that any sexual relationship with a child of less than 15 years should never be considered consensual
the recognition of traumatic amnesia (the forgetting of an assault or of some of the events following an assault)
the elimination of the statute of limitations for sex crimes (so that anyone can bring charges over sex crimes no matter how many years have passed since the incident).
In France in 2017, many women and feminists were enraged by two separate incidents in which men aged over twenty had sexual relations with girls aged 11, and the French justice system did not recognise this as rape. In France, the law does not allow such acts to be automatically considered as rape for a child over five years old. It is the responsibility of the victim to prove the presence of “violence”, “constraint”, “threat” or “surprise”, no matter what the age of their age or the details of the situation. The victim is thus considered consenting by default. According to the psychiatrist and feminist activist Muriel Salmona, judges could thus “seriously conclude that an adult man could have sexual relations with a child who was consenting, and that this had no impact on the child’s integrity or development.”
Feminists also mobilised in demand for an end to the statute of limitations for sex crimes, i.e. that there is no limit on the number of years after an assault a victim can press charges.
Further, the manifesto “STOP sex crime impunity”, begun by Muriel Salmona, was signed by more than 50,000 people.
A bill with promise
A bill introduced by Marlène Schiappa, the Secretary of Equality between Women and Men, gave us momentary hope that genuine changes might be made. But, a bill, between the time it is written and its adoption, makes numerous trips between the various parts of government who must validate it (known as the “shuttle”), and is subject to numerous modifications. This is so that the rulers can be sure to let nothing pass that might compromise even slightly the laws they have established and which guarantee the system that accords them full rights.
The rejection of the age limit for consent
For example, the bill had to pass through the State Council, which was supposed to announce its decision on March 7th, a symbolic date because of International Women’s Day on March 8th. In the end, the announcement was delayed until March 21st (presumably to avoid causing a controversy around March 8th).
As the journalists Catherine Mallaval, Amaelle Guiton and Julie Brafman explain in their article, the bill initially established an age limit for consent at 15 years: any sexual aggression or “any act of sexual penetration, of whatever nature, committed on a minor of less than fifteen years old by an adult” would have constituted rape “when the perpetrator knew or could not possibly have been ignorant of the victim’s age”. But according to the Council of State, this would cause “constitutional difficulties”. According to the judges, it would be better not to establish an age limit, and instead facilitate the demonstration of “constraint and surprise” for victims aged less than fifteen years. So, back to square one: the victim, no matter what her age and no matter in what context the assault took place, is responsible for demonstrating that she did not consent.
This decision was criticised by feminist groups who fought against this gap in the law. Notably, a July 20 press release, signed by 56 feminist groups and 117 individuals, denounced Article 2 of the law and demanded the introduction of an age limit for consent to sexual acts. Nonetheless, the law was not modified on this point.
The rejection of the recognition of traumatic amnesia
Also in March, the Senate adopted an amendment that recognised “traumatic amnesia as an element suspending the statute of limitations for crimes committed against minors”. So, in the presence of recognised traumatic amnesia, there would no longer be a time limit on the number of years after the occurrence of an assault after which charges could not be pressed, as Muriel Salmona explained. Of course, this amendment was subsequently rejected.
In the final version of the law adopted on August 1, the statute of limitations for sex crimes had not been lifted; it was simply extended from twenty to thirty years. That is, a victim cannot press charges for a sex crime that was perpetrated more than thirty years earlier. This is despite the well-known fact that the consequences of sexual assault may be very serious and may take different forms, notably including traumatic amnesia which is not subject to a 30-year time limit.
Measures against street harassment, but only in the street
The law includes measures to punish “sexist insults” (by fines) in the context of street harassment: “the fact of imposing on a person any words or behavior with sexual or sexist connotations which either attacks their dignity due to its degrading or humiliating character, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation for them”.
A police force charged with the protection of safety in daily life will be responsible for the fines. We will have to wait and see where these additional personnel will be deployed. Due to the government’s profoundly racist and neo-colonialist vision, it seems highly likely that these additional police officers will be concentrated in working-class suburbs or at specific locations within cities known to be meeting places for working-class people (such as Les Halles or the Gare du Nord in Paris), and not in upper-class and majority-white neighbourhoods. As the organisation Lallab stated, “we imagine that the additional 10 000 police officers will not be deployed in the 16th arrondissement [a bourgeois, white neighbourhood in Paris], but in working class neighbourhoods, to reinforce police surveillance of the people who live there”.
The journalist Anne-Sophie Chazeau, writing for the racist and misogynist magazine Causeur about the new law, explains:
“… even if no one can contest the urgent need to combat the endemic insecurity experienced by women in public space – though evidently no one wants to question or clearly name the genuine causes of this massive step backwards – the means provided for this leave us sceptical.”
This quotation demonstrates the obsession of the dominant classes with repressing the violence committed by working class men and men of colour who they clearly consider to be at the origin of the “massive step backwards” constituted by street harassment, while systematically leaving aside the violence committed by men from their own white, bourgeois networks (this is also shown by the fact that Causeur defended the open letter arguing for the “freedom to bother” published in Le Monde in January 2018; as we explained in this article).
The sexual harassment continually inflected on women at work, in state institutions, at school, in medical institutions… etc. is not mentioned in the law. Neither is sexual violence in the context of male partner violence. Because sexual harassment in France only takes place in the street, from strangers, and never by white, bourgeois men in the places they control.
As pointed out by the association Lallab, given that sexist harassment in public spaces is the only form of harassment targeted by this law, it is also likely that harassment that is doubly misogynist and racist will not be punished within its framework. This will be a problem for women who wear the headscarf who are more and more often victim of attacks that are simultaneously racist and misogynist.
The absence of measures against sexual violence in the couple, at work, etc., reinforces the idea that male violence against women is necessarily committed by strangers, outside, in the street and especially in working-class neighbourhoods or neighbourhoods commonly frequented by working class people. But not at work, not at home, and not in the streets of upper-class and fashionable neighbourhoods. Once again, we have a law which confirms the separation of “good” men from “bad” men, with “good” men being white and bourgeois; a vision which was also imposed, for example, during and after the World Cup (as we explained in this article).
A disappointment widely shared among feminists
Many women and feminists have responded since August 1 to denounce the various gaps and errors in this law.
Clémentine Autin, an MP from France Insoumise (a left-wing party) who has fought against sexual violence, explained that the law lacks a “reversal of the burden of proof [from victims to perpetrators] for proceedings involving the rape of minors”. i.e., it is always the responsibility of the victim to prove that she did not consent.
The Groupe F published an infographic on twitter pointing out the law’s gaps and problems:
For Muriel Salmona, it is a “fiasco”, a law “emptied of content which fails to protect children from rape and sexual assault and to fight against the impunity of these crimes”.
“It is a very long way from our demands and from what is necessary to respect the fundamental rights of children as they are inscribed in various international and European conventions that France has signed”. “This necessity to prove violence, constraint, threat or surprise when a child is sexually penetrated by an adult is a challenge to communal understanding and an intolerable denial of the violence of the act of penetration in itself, of its cruel and inhuman character. A child can in no case consent to an act that does violence to them, an act that they have neither the capacity nor the freedom to oppose, when they cannot understand what is at stake, the consequences on their life and their physical and mental integrity.”
After the reactions of feminists and feminist groups, the institutional and media-led backlash
The opportunism of the extreme right and the government response
From the moment of the law’s adoption, the French extreme right appropriated the criticisms made by feminists of the law to accuse the minister (Schiappa) of “legalising paedophila”. This is fake news, the law did not legalise paedo-criminality*; however, it did not establish a legal age of consent. The French extreme right often makes a lot of noise about the protection of children, particularly when in relation to banning abortion or when it allows them to make racist statements. Naturally, it does not respond in the same way when the Catholic Church and various priests and other powerful paedo-criminals are denounced. As Stéphanie Lamy, co-founder of the collective “Family abandonment – Zero Tolerance !” explained on twitter: according to extreme right activists, “feminists encourage liberal sexual mores, thus “normalizing” paedo-criminality, while these are the same people who accuse feminists of promoting sexual oppression by refusing to let men harass them.”
The extreme right has thus appropriated feminist critiques of the government to attack both the government and the feminist movement.
The government responded to these attacks by targeting feminists. As Stéphanie Lamy explained via twitter, Marlène Schiappa’s cabinet used an infographic in its response that had been created by the association Traumatic Memory and Victimology (whose president is Muriel Salmona), and in the process distorting its meaning. The infographic showed how, unlike other European countries, France has not established a minimum age of consent. Schiappa’s cabinet superposed a stamp saying “fake news” over the infographic, and used another chart giving information about the law without permission. Through this distorted infographic, the government implied that the “fake news” conveyed by the extreme right was caused by the feminist groups who criticized the law’s content.
The media response
Several international media outlets relayed information about the adoption of this law, showing how problematic it is. In France, some newspapers, after first reporting on feminist anger over and analysis of the law, responded to the discourse of the extreme right with a different type of article. These articles were much more forgiving of the Schiappa bill; for example, Le Monde published an article claiming to be a “clarification”, but which effectively took the form of a defence of the law.
In the French media, but also sometimes in English, more “clarificatory” articles were published: to say no, France did not decriminalise sexual relations with children, which is true. But in this “concern with accuracy”, these articles hide the most important point: France does not automatically condemn sexual relations between adults and minors. This was the case before the law and it remains so, and it is extremely serious.
Once again, the extreme right has succeeded in shifting the discourse; the government attacks feminists, accused of being the source of this “misinformation”, when in fact it was their responsibility to introduce the measures required to genuinely protect children, girls and women from male violence. But it is simpler to blame feminists. The extreme right, in concert with the media and government responses, has succeeded in depoliticising the debate.
And the shifting of the debate over the protection of children… towards the Islamic headscarf
It was the perfect moment for representatives of the French government to protest against an ad from the US label GAP, which shows a girl wearing a headscarf.
An MP from the ruling party La République en Marche, Aurore Bergé, responded with a tweet:
“Nothing authorises or justifies the veiling of little girls: where is their liberty? Where is their free will? Where is their choice? It disgusts me that this has been turned into a commercial argument.”
This position against the appearance of a girl wearing a headscarf – and not against the sexualisation of women and girls in advertising and in society more generally – allows the government to prove its dedication to the struggle against violence against children. But only against certain forms of violence, those committed in the street, committed by men of colour (as seen in the measures against street harassment) and those committed in the homes of these same men (by speaking out against the GAP ad). Because seriously, how is it worse for a girl to wear a headscarf than a mini-skirt or high heels?Once again, public debate focuses on the headscarf rather than on the totality of male violence inflicted on women and girls in France.
A law which will not protect children, girls and women
So, we are left with a law that does not recognise paedo-criminal sexual acts as rape, that requires minors to prove sexual assault, and which imposes a limit of thirty years in which to do it. Far from protecting children, girls and women, this law protects perpetrators.
This type of law conveys the idea that girls and women, no matter what their age or the situation, can consent to sex with men. One of the consequences of so-called “sexual liberation” and of “May 1968” was, far from bringing women any kind of liberation, was to allow men unlimited and legitimate access to the bodies of women, and girls. As in several western countries, following the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, various individuals and groups attempted to legitimise paedo-criminality by arguing that it is a sexual preference, in the same way as homosexuality. In France, it appears that these ideas are more firmly anchored than in other countries, hence the absence of an age limit for consent. It is not for nothing that the paedo-criminal Roman Polanski chose to move to France, where despite his acts he was met with a great deal of support.
The Schiappa bill clearly demonstrates the universalisation of the perspective of white, bourgeois men: criminalising sexual violence, ok, but only in the public sphere and in places where they do not go (the street, and especially working class areas). It is these men who make the laws, and they make them for themselves. Women have to adopt the point of view of these white, bourgeois men, and see the world through their eyes (as explained in this article). And in the eyes of the law and of French Universalism, no man is guilty of rape until the woman or child victim has proved it according to the terms and conditions defined by men.
However, with the refusal to put in place an age limit for consent the universalisation of men’s point of view goes further: even the act of sexual abuse itself must be seen and experienced as it is seen and experienced by men, the perpetrators of the act. As Catharine MacKinnon writes:
For men, normal sex is constituted by force and power differences because heterosexuality is a model of dominance and submission. This is the message conveyed by pornography. Coercion is central to normal sexual relations; it is what makes sex sexual. So, for men, sexual relations with children look like normal sexual relations, with a slightly larger difference of power than usual (which is thus all the more sexually exciting). Why would they want to change this?
Effectively, one of the arguments used by the State Council in its decision to reject the age limit for sexual consent was the fact that sexual relations between, for example, two young people aged 14 and 17 would be illegal from the moment the older participant turns 18. Never mind that all the countries that have legal age limits for sexual consent have found ways around this “problem”. In fact, with this decision the state aligns itself with 17-year-old boys who want to have relationships with 14-year-old girls (an age gap that is already problematic in our view), and against all children who could be victim of rape by adults. The state identifies not with the girls and children who are victims of rape and sexual assault, but with boys who could be condemned for assault or rape on their eighteenth birthday.
Alexandra Louis, spokesperson for La République en Marche (the rolling party) with respect to this law, said:
“No MP voted against this law because it is a genuine step forward, it is progress”.
In the homeland of the rights of man and the negation of rights for women, the fact that no MP voted against a bill is not a sign of progress. On the contrary, it is a sign of the continuation of the status quo, of willed inertia. Laws in France are not made for protecting oppressed groups, but for reinforcing the rights of the ruling class. Notably, in the sense of having unlimited access to the bodies of women and girls.
Contemporary patriarchy creates a division between “good” and “bad” men. It leads women to believe that “good” men, i.e. the white, bourgeois men in power, are concerned with women’s safety. This division prevents us from seeing men as an oppressor class. And it makes us believe that some men care about us and that, even though they don’t let us make decisions for ourselves, they will try to put measures in place to protect us. On the contrary, they protect only their own interests and privileges, and their right to access the bodies of women and girls.
Thanks to Marine, Tully et Ferial.
* Translator’s note: “pédocriminalité” is a term frequently used by French feminists to avoid the positive connotations of the suffix “-phile” in “paedophile” which they argue contributes to the legitimising and normalisation of child rape. I have chosen to reproduce this usage in the English translation.