The UNHRC condemns France’s niqab ban: a feminist, anti-racist and decolonial perspective

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The meeting place of the UNHRC in Geneva.

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.

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Testimony from a woman of colour: academic racism, solidarity and speaking up

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.

An activist’s testimony: growing up with unstable family members, being feminist and accepting conflict

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Photo of a feminist banner: “Cambiare la vita delle donne per cambiare il mondo” (translation: Change women’s lives to change the world)

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 law against sexual and sexist violence: from status quo to backlash, with a generous dash of racism

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Photo of the window of a French clothing shop showing a child’s t-shirt with a blue-white-and-red rooster (a symbol of France), in front of blue-white-and-red adult t-shirts

 

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:

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[Translation:
Bill against sexual violence. Summary. [What the law did NOT include]
X An age limit to protect child rape victims.
X Compulsory training for all professionals (health, judiciary, police).
X Education against violence from a young age.
X Measures against sexual harassment in the workplace.
X Measures against male partner violence (which is the most common [form of violence]).
X Compulsory reporting of violence against children for doctors.]
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.

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GAPKIDS ad, published in Le Monde

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:

“Under law, rape is a sex crime that is not regarded as a crime when it looks like sex.” (p.172, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State).

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.

 

 

The World Cup: a victory for nationalism and misogyny

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Picture showing men dressed in blue-white-and-red with French flags, celebrating in the street in France the victory of France after one of the World Cup’s match (FINT)

 

The men’s football World Cup finished on Sunday July 15, with France taking out the victory. But in reality, it was white bourgeois men who won on all fronts, against women.

Firstly, because this kind of event exacerbates male violence. The world cup was the context for numerous incidents of misogynist violence in Russia, against women supporters or journalists. Further, three women members of Pussy Riot (and one man), who ran onto the pitch during the final to publicise their political demands, were condemned to two weeks in prison. Men’s football happens without women and against women; and this is the case in France as well as Russia.

A study conducted by Lancaster University, in the UK, found that the number of episodes of male violence in the home reported by women increase after a defeat in football (by 38%), and also in the case of victory (by 26%). In France, no similar study exists, but it is highly probable that the increase in violence is of similar magnitude. The message of mainstream campaigners against this violence – in France as well as the UK – is: “Football is not the source of this violence, abusive behaviour is”. And this “abusive behaviour” is explained away by alcohol, hot weather or the violent behaviour of certain men: working class men, and non-white working class men in particular. This distinction between “good” and “bad” men is one of the central pillars of patriarchy and of Universalism. Under this system, white, bourgeois men are “good” men, and the others are “bad” men.

As if violence is only committed by certain men, and as if this violence can be uniquely explained by the context of a football match. As if the problem does not come from men as a class.

In fact, the problem is first and foremost a problem of men. The World Cup, and the fact of supporting a national team from a colonialist country, reinforces solidarity among white men. This sense of brotherhood, often strongly fortified by alcohol, easily turns into violence, harassment and assault. Against women.

This is why a hashtag #BienvenueChezMoi (“[you are] welcome at my place”) was created in France, to allow individuals to invite women to stay with them if they did not feel safe on the night of the grand final.

Héloïse Duché, a feminist activist from the Groupe F, explained that behavior dangerous to women increases after football matches: “on Twitter on Tuesday evening, following France’s victory [in the semi-final], women reported the assaults of which they had been victim in the street or in public transport. Football fans kissed them or touched them against their will, as if they were at their disposition to celebrate the victory in this way”. On the evening of the grand final (Sunday July 15th) and of the celebration of the French team’s triumphant return on the Champs Elysées (Monday 16th), many women reported on social media being victim of assault from men, in public transport or in the crowds of thousands of supporters.

But this violence is not episodic, linked only to the World Cup. Male violence forms part of a system. In the case of the World Cup, violence increases in the private sphere, that of the home and the couple, but also in the public sphere, that of the street and the stadium. During the Cup, men move in groups, occupying public space, harassing and assaulting women, in the street. And similar pressures that operate within the couple also operate in the public sphere: the requirement that women celebrate this men’s victory with men, that they put up with their violence, that they yield to their harassment. The continuum of violence shifts: the violence usually operating primarily in the couple also operates in the public sphere. Leading to the belief that male violence only happens during the cup, and only due to “bad” men.

The distinction between “good” and “bad” men inevitably serves the interests of white men: it turns attention away from white men’s violence, whether the violence they commit within their families or the violence they commit as the rulers and protectors of the capitalist, neo-colonialist, racist and patriarchal system.

A parallel distinction can be seen in the construction of “good” and “bad” supporters: on the evening of the final the French government suspended bus services between Paris and its inner suburbs [in which there is a high concentration of immigrants and working class people] for “security reasons”. All of this is linked to the neo-colonialist dimensions of the Cup. The media and the government lauded the “extraordinary team” that, according to a tweet from the Prime Minister, “made France proud”. But the members of the team, who are almost all non-white men, are very rarely named. Exemplifying this trend, the journalist Thomas Sotto said “we benefit from this wonderful celebration thanks to Just Fontaine, Platini and his gang, because of Zidane…”, giving the impression that the players in the 2018 team owed their victory to the mostly white players featuring in teams from before 1998 [the year of France’s only other world cup victory].

Members of the dominant class are overjoyed by this Cup [meme picture of Macron?], as if they themselves were responsible for it, and as if France was a territory unified under the Republic of the red-white-and-blue flag. This is the aim of this kind of national event. When, during a 2008 match between France and Tunisia, the crowd showed its contempt by whistling during the Marseillaise [the French national anthem], the right-wing government was so incensed that it attempted to put legal measures in place to prevent this kind of activity in the future. In France today, this constitutes an act of “contempt” against a “national symbol”, an offense punishable by six months in prison if committed in a group and a 7500 fine. In other words, enforced nationalism.

Blue-white-and-red flags are proudly displayed in people’s windows, but what exactly is this pride? Firstly, it is the pride of white bourgeois men, who only follow the football when the success of the national team allows them to display their nationalism, to celebrate in groups (without this being “communitarian”, naturally) and to harass women. Secondly, it is the pride of the government, which will benefit from an increase in popularity in opinion polls, and which will be able to implement its neoliberal reforms all the more easily. These reforms will affect oppressed groups first and foremost, and particularly women. Women of colour will be the primary targets of the intensification of nationalism and racism that will inevitably follow.

Women, the largest losing team of the World Cup.

By Suzanne

Thanks to Catherine, Ferial and Jonté.

La version originale en français de cet article se trouve ici.

Coupe du Monde: victoire du nationalisme et de la misogynie

 

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Photo montrant des hommes habillés en bleu-blanc-rouge, avec des drapeaux français, fêtant dans la rue la victoire de l’équipe de France après un des matchs de la Coupe du monde (FINT)

La Coupe du monde de football masculin s’est terminée dimanche 15/07, avec la victoire de l’équipe de France. Mais ce sont les hommes blancs et bourgeois qui ont gagné sur tous les tableaux. Contre les femmes.

D’abord, parce que ce type d’événements exacerbe la violence des hommes. La Coupe a été le théâtre de nombreuses agressions misogynes en Russie, contre des femmes supportrices ou journalistes. Par ailleurs, trois femmes membres des Pussy Riots qui se sont introduites (avec un homme) sur le terrain lors de la finale afin de faire des demandes politiques ont été condamnées à 15 jours de prison. Le foot masculin se fait sans les femmes, contre les femmes; et en France aussi.

Une étude réalisée par l’Université de Lancaster, en Grande Bretagne, a montré que le niveau des violences masculines au domicile rapportées par les femmes augmentent en cas de défaite (+38%), mais aussi en cas de victoire (+26%). En France, il n’y a pas d’étude, mais c’est fort probable que la hausse des violences soit du même niveau.

Le message de la campagne contre ces violences -et en France aussi- reste: « ce n’est pas le football qui crée les violences, ce sont les comportements abusifs ». Et ces « comportements abusifs » vont être expliqués par l’alcool, la chaleur ou le comportement violent de certains hommes uniquement : les hommes de classe populaire, et surtout les hommes racisés. Cette distinction entre les hommes « bons » et les hommes « mauvais » est un des piliers du patriarcat et de l’Universalisme. Selon ce système, l’homme blanc et bourgeois devient l’homme « bon », et les autres, les « mauvais ».

Comme si les violences n’étaient exercées que par certains hommes, et que cela pouvait s’expliquer par le contexte. Comme si le problème ne venait pas des hommes.

Au contraire, le problème vient d’abord des hommes. La Coupe du monde, et le fait de soutenir une équipe nationale d’un pays colonialiste, renforce la solidarité entre hommes blancs. Cette fraternité, souvent largement arrosée d’alcool, va se transformer en violences, en harcèlement et en agressions. Contre les femmes.

C’est pour cela qu’un hashtag #BienvenueChezMoi a été lancé en France, pour proposer un hébergement chez soi aux femmes ne se sentant pas en sécurité le soir de la finale.

Héloïse Duché, militante féministe du Groupe F a expliqué que les comportements à risque augmentent lors des matchs : « sur Twitter mardi soir après la victoire de la France [en demi-finale], des femmes ont témoigné des violences qu’elles ont subies dans la rue ou dans les transports publics. Des supporters les embrassant de force ou les touchant, comme si elles étaient à leur disposition pour fêter la victoire de cette manière avec eux ».  Le soir de la finale (dimanche 15) et de l’arrivée de l’équipe de France sur les Champs Élysées (lundi 16) de nombreuses femmes ont dénoncé sur les réseaux sociaux les agressions qu’elles avaient subies de la part d’hommes, dans les transports ou dans la foule de milliers de supporters.

Mais cette violence n’est pas épisodique et liée seulement à la Coupe du monde. Les violences masculines font système. Dans le cas de la Coupe, les violences sont exacerbées dans la sphère privée, celle du domicile et du couple, mais également dans la sphère publique, celle de la rue et des stades. Car, les hommes se promènent en groupe, occupent l’espace public, harcèlent et agressent des femmes, dans la rue.

Une femme a dénoncé dans un tweet l’agression sexuelle qu’elle a subie par un homme lundi soir, alors que les hommes autour encourageaient l’agresseur (“vas-y champion”), et lui-même justifiait son agression par “mais on a gagné!”.  Lors de la Coupe, la pression qui s’exerce dans le couple peut s’exercer dans la sphère publique : obligation pour les femmes à célébrer avec les hommes la victoire des hommes, à subir leur violence, à plier sous leur harcèlement. Et les hommes justifient leur violence misogyne par la victoire sportive d’autres hommes.

Il y a un déplacement dans le continuum de la violence: la violence qui s’exerce dans le couple s’exerce aussi dans la sphère publique. Faisant croire que les violences masculines n’ont lieu que pendant la coupe, et à cause d’hommes « mauvais ».

La distinction entre les hommes « bons » et les « mauvais » sert les intérêts des hommes blancs : on ne prête plus attention aux violences exercées par les hommes blancs, ni au sein de leur famille, ni en tant que détenteurs et protecteurs du système capitaliste, néo-colonialiste, raciste et patriarcal.

On a aussi retrouvé cette distinction entre les « bons » supporters et les « mauvais » : les pouvoirs publics ont interdit dimanche à partir de 18h la circulation des bus des réseaux Paris et de banlieue proche (92, 93, 94), pour « des raisons de sécurité ». Sûrement afin de rendre plus difficile le déplacement des personnes de banlieues, mais de laisser l’espace aux supporters parisiens.

Tout cela est lié à la dimension néo-coloniale de la Coupe du monde. Les médias et membres du gouvernement ont salué une « équipe formidable » qui selon le tweet du Premier ministre a fait la « fierté de la France ». Mais on ne nomme que très rarement les membres de l’équipe, en majorité des hommes racisés. Le journaliste Thomas Sotto a dit que : « Si on profite de cette fête merveilleuse, c’est parce qu’avant il y a eu Just Fontaine, Platini et sa bande, parce qu’il y a eu Zidane… », donnant l’impression que les joueurs de l’équipe de 2018 devaient la victoire aux joueurs pour la plupart blancs des équipes d’avant 1998.

Les dominants se réjouissent de cette Coupe, comme s’ils en étaient responsables, comme aussi si la France était un territoire uni sous la république tricolore. C’est le but de ce type de manifestation nationale. Lorsqu’en 2008 la marseillaise avait été sifflée lors d’un match France-Tunisie, le gouvernement de droite était monté au créneau, tellement cela était inadmissible. Et il s’agit en France d’un outrage à un des symboles nationaux, délit qui est passible de 6 mois de prison si effectué en groupe, et 7500€ d ‘amande. Ou le nationalisme forcé.

Et en effet, les drapeaux bleu-blanc-rouges sont fièrement affichés aux fenêtres, mais quelle est cette fierté ? D’abord, celle des hommes blancs et bourgeois, qui ne suivent le foot que lorsque l’équipe nationale leur permet d’exhiber leur nationalisme, et de se réunir (mais bien sûr, sans communautarisme) et de harceler des femmes. Ensuite, c’est celle du gouvernement, qui va sûrement bénéficier d’une hausse de soutien dans les sondages, et qui va pouvoir mieux faire passer toutes les réformes néo-libérales prévues. Ces réformes toucheront d’abord les groupes opprimés, et surtout les femmes. Et les femmes racisées devront de plus subir l’aggravation du nationalisme et du racisme qui vont suivre.

Les femmes, ces grandes perdantes de la Coupe.

 

Par Suzanne

Merci à Catherine, Ferial et Jonté.

Les prochains articles de ce blog seront uniquement anglophones, mais il y a une version francophone du blog, avec les articles en fr: https://feminisminnewtermsfr.wordpress.com/

2018 in France: six months of sexism, racism and Universalism.

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A shop window in France

Over the course of 2018, France – like many other countries – has been marked by a series of attacks against women. At this halfway point of the year, we have chosen to analyse a selection of these events to demonstrate that, despite their apparent differences, they are all connected in this “homeland of the rights of Man”.

 

January: the open letter defending men’s “freedom to pester”

The first event we will consider is the publication of an open letter (in English here) in the newspaper Le Monde signed by 100 French women on January 9. This letter criticised the #metoo campaign, defended men’s “freedom to pester”, and denounced feminist campaigns against a variety of pornographic depictions of women and girls or of male violence in art, literature, and cinema. Much was written about this letter in the media at the time, but international reporting focused strongly on Catherine Deneuve’s signature, without paying much attention to the identities of the authors and other signatories. In fact, many of these women have significant reputations in France, and it is highly revealing to look at who they are.

The letter was written by five women:

  • Sarah Chiche, a psychoanalyst who instigated the letter when her literary editor suggested that she should consider making her latest book less sexist.
  • Catherine Millet, author of the notorious 2001 pornographic book The sexual life of Catherine M. In 2017 she released a book entitled Loving Lawrence: Catherine M. Meets Lady Chatterley about the author D. H. Lawrence – often cited by feminists as one of English literature’s worst misogynists.
  • Peggy Sastre, a journalist who published a book in 2015 entitled Male domination does not exist. This book argues that the differential behavior of men and women with regards to sex can be traced to evolutionary biology.[1]
  • Abnousse Shalmani, a French-Iranian author. According to Agnès Poirier, writing in the Guardian, Shalmani wrote in her 2014 book Khomeiny, Sade and me that the Marquis de Sade (alongside other, less misogynist authors such as Colette) “taught her how to be free, as a woman and a sexual being, far from the Islamic veil she was forced to wear as a girl in Tehran”.
  • Catherine Robbe-Grillet, a former actor and fairly well-known writer of sadomasochistic fiction.

The identity of the signatories is also revealing. Here is a small selection of some of the most notorious in France:

  • Catherine Deneuve, known – among other things – for her support over a number of years for the director and child rapist Roman Polanski.
  • Brigitte Lahaie, formerly filmed in pornography and now a radio talk show host for Sud Radio. In a TV interview following the publication of the letter, she claimed that “women can have an orgasm during rape”. While this statement is true, the context in which it was made was highly problematic and created a scandal. She later apologised for her statement.[2]
  • Elisabeth Levy, journalist, Zionist, founder and current editor of the polemic magazine Causeur, a publication that consistently displays astounding levels of misogyny and racism.[3]

In short, this is group of women who consistently make misogynist arguments. Working in the professions which they do and immersed in such woman-hating ideologies, they have no doubt suffered an extraordinary degree of male violence over extended periods of time, to the extent that they can no longer recognise sexual harassment and abuse as violence. Their identification with the interests of rich, white men is total.

In the end, they are simply a small handful of women whose life situations and opinions do not represent those of the majority of French women, who are generally entirely capable of recognising sexual harassment for what it is. This is evident, for example, in the fact that a 2015 survey of 600 women in two Parisian suburbs found that 100% of them had experienced sexual harassment on public transport. Further, French women participated massively in the #metoo campaign, creating the hashtags #balancetonporc [“squeal on your pig”] and #metoovraievie [“#metoo in real life”]. French feminists also responded to the open letter in force, including one counter-letter signed by over 1000 women. These responses were barely reported internationally, feeding a stereotype of France as uniformly conservative and anti-feminist.

 

February: the silencing of Caroline de Haas and Mennel Ibtissem

In the aftermath of the #metoo campaign and January’s open letter, Caroline de Haas, a prominent feminist activist and one of the first to respond to the open letter, was interviewed by a French newspaper on the 14th of february. She said that given the number of women who report being victims of male violence, “one out of every two or three men is a perpetrator of violence against women”. Following this statement, she was subjected to a campaign of harassment via social media and on television. Notably, French director Dominique Besnehard said in a TV interview:

“I am a feminist, I have an extraordinary relationship with women, [but] when I see journalists who say, one man in three is a predator, um, Caroline de Haas, I want to slap her.”

He subsequently claimed to have received a great deal of support for his statement. The level of harassment that she received was so great that Caroline de Haas quit social media.

Around the same time as the attacks on Caroline de Haas, Mennel Ibtissem, a competitor on the reality TV show The Voice, was subjected to a campaign of vicious racist misogyny. Ibtissem is a Franco-Syrian woman who wears a headscarf. The attacks followed her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, including one verse in Arabic. The campaign of harassment centered on some facebook posts she made several years earlier supporting Palestine and commenting on the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, with some commentators making links with her headscarf. Ibtissem made several public statements to the effect that she did not support terrorism and that her posts had been misunderstood. She also commented, “It was because I wear a turban [small headscarf] that people went searching in my facebook” (Perhaps the fact that she sung a Christian song in Arabic also contributed…?) Ibtissem was not the first person of colour to compete in The Voice France, nor the first to sing in Arabic, but she was attacked with a violence that had never before been seen in relation to this program. As a result of these attacks, she withdrew from The Voice.

 

April: various attacks on Muslim women’s right to exist as French citizens in public space

During the month of April, reports of a number of attacks relating to women wearing the headscarf in France circulated widely on social media, creating outrage in anti-racist circles. In the first of these (announced on April 11th) the French Council of State released its verdict on the rejection of French nationality for an Algerian woman, married to a French citizen, who refused to shake the hand of two male French officials at her citizenship ceremony in 2016. The woman had appealed the decision, explaining that she refused because of her religion. The Council of State’s verdict confirmed the denial of citizenship to this woman, invoking a “lack of assimilation”.

In the second event (on April 14th), a woman wearing a headscarf reported her experience at a convenience store she visited to collect a parcel that had arrived for her via post. The owners of the shop had posted a notice outside forbidding women entering wearing head coverings. The female staff member refused to give the woman her package unless she removed her headscarf, and verbally insulted her.

Finally, on April 16th, a woman wearing a niqab was roughly handled by police (images circulated of her lying on the ground as police officers immobilised and handcuffed her). She was held in custody for two days before being released with charges that roughly translate as contempt towards public officials, violently resisting arrest and making death threats against a public official.

 

May: the targeting of Maryam Pougetoux, a trade-union leader

On May 12th, a TV show on the student protests against proposed government reforms to the university system included an interview with Maryam Pougetoux, the president of the left-wing student union UNEF at Paris IV University, and who wears a headscarf. Following the interview, Laurent Bouvet, co-founder of the Printemps Républicain, (the “Republican Spring”; a supposedly left-wing movement, in reality French nationalist and racist) attacked Pougetoux on social media and criticised UNEF for electing a president who wears the headscarf. Attacks came, too, from many other activists and representatives of other supposedly leftist organisations. Members of the government also criticised and attacked Pougetoux, such as the Secretary of State for equality between men and women, who called Pougetoux’s headscarf a symbol of “political Islam”. Pougetoux made a public statement to explain that her headscarf was not a political symbol, that people were trying to give to it a meaning that she herself did not give, and that she herself would defend “all women, whether they want to wear [the headscarf] or do not want to, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim.”

A support movement grew up around her, including activists such as Rokhaya Diallo, to denounce these attacks and the more general exclusion of Muslim women from the public sphere. English-language media was more sympathetic towards Pougetoux than the French media, notably in an article by Aida Alami published in the New York Times. Alami was subsequently attacked by Laurent Bouvet, and she wrote in a tweet that despite having reported on many controversial topics, she had never before experienced such a high level of harassment.

 

June: planned [terrorist] attack against Muslims averted by police

Most recently, a group of 10 French extreme right activists were arrested for planning an attack against – amongst other Muslim targets – women wearing the headscarf randomly selected in the street. Naturally, this group was not referred to by the French media as a “terrorist group”.

 

* * *

 

What do all these events have in common? At first glance, it may appear that we have combined two different types of event: one type representing anti-feminism (against all women), and the other representing racism (against women wearing the headscarf). Some feminists, particularly in France, would see this grouping as strange: they see the wearing of the headscarf as incompatible with feminism, which is necessarily secular and opposed to all religious practices. According to this point of view, January’s open letter and February’s attacks on Caroline de Haas have nothing to do with the other events, all of which targeted women wearing the headscarf. Moreover, these latter events may even be seen as non-problematic attempts to enforce the secularism of French society.

We at Feminism In New Terms do not take this position. Instead, we see these events as closely linked through their adherence to an ideology sometimes known as “French Universalism”. A significant proportion of our time and energy as feminist and anti-racist activists is spent fighting against this ideology, which permeates all of French society to a significant extent, but is rarely recognised in all of its sexist, racist, classist, ableist, etc… manifestations.[4]

 

What is French Universalism?

French Universalism generally consists of a potent combination of Eurocentric, neo-colonial racism and sexual libertarianism on men’s terms. Unfortunately, its “feminist” (wo)manifestation shares these characteristics. While it is most commonly seen in action against Muslim women, particularly those who wear the headscarf, it is at its heart an ideology that targets all women, as is amply demonstrated by the open letter and the attacks on Caroline de Haas.

An early manifestation of French Universalism can be found in the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen). This document is a key text of the French Revolution which lists the rights that supposedly exist for all French people. It holds the rights of man to be universal, valid in all times and places, and naturally inherent in human beings.

Two years later, the feminist and anti-slavery activist Olympe de Gouges published the  Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the rights of woman and of the female citizen). This satirical text points out that the rights listed in the first Declaration were not in fact universal because they did not apply to fully half of the population – women. While the French Revolution made many advances, such as abolishing the monarchy and establishing democracy, it did not lead to the extension of the much-vaunted égalité (equality) to French women. (It should also be noted that slavery had not yet been abolished, so the first Declaration was also not intended to apply to slaves.) The French revolutionary government refused to accept De Gouges’ Declaration and, thanks to her radical ideas, she was convicted of treason and executed by guillotine in 1793.

Even now, the French government has consistently refused to adopt the phrase “droits humains” (“human rights”), insisting on maintaining the use of “droits de l’homme” (“rights of man”). This insistence is representative of the continuation of the pattern established by the universalists of the French Revolution. Equality is assumed to exist because it has been written in a declaration. According to the law, women, racial minorities, working-class people, people with disabilities, etc., all have the same rights as white, bourgeois men: the fact that, in practice, significant barriers exist to prevent subordinated groups from accessing these rights is ignored or denied.

Since the Revolution, then, the point of reference, the model, has been he by whom the texts were written and for whom the system was put in place: the white, bourgeois, French man. As feminist sociologist Christine Delphy explains, this group of white, bourgeois men has been transformed into a universal category: this means that everyone else is required to experience reality under and through their vision of the world. According to this understanding of equality, white bourgeois men are already equal, and therefore so is everyone else: so any inequalities experienced by members of subordinate groups are portrayed as the result of personal failures, as individual problems invoking guilt and shame.

In short, this “equality”, presented as universal, in fact exists only for white, bourgeois French men. Any attempts to point this out are met with, at best, a deafening silence and/or the insistence that whatever is being complained about doesn’t exist; and at worst, a horrific backlash (let us not forget that Olympe de Gouges was executed for her ideas; the attacks on Caroline de Haas are a continuation of the same pattern). French Universalism is, as Christine Delphy has argued, a “false universalism”, because it is not universal at all. Rather, it is the universalisation of the point of view of white, bourgeois men through its imposition onto everyone else, with the claim that it will benefit everyone.

 

The adoption of Universalism by (many) French feminists

This ideology has unfortunately been taken up by many women and feminists in France, though in different ways and to differing extents. For example, many women who would totally reject the January open letter do not find objectionable, for example, the attacks on Mennel Ibtissem and Maryam Pougetoux. These women – who often identify as feminists – support the 2004 law banning the wearing of the headscarf in schools and the 2010 law banning the wearing of the niqab in public places. They seem oblivious to the fact that, while the wearing of the hijab and the niqab is certainly a patriarchal practice that oppresses women, so too is the wearing of makeup, high heels and the performance of other beauty practices routinely imposed on women in Western countries.

Making laws specifically against patriarchal practices imposed in the vast majority of cases only on women from Muslim cultural backgrounds is not feminist, it is racist; particularly so in light of the disastrous material consequences for these women that result from these laws. It is, once again, the universalisation of a particular point of view: that of white western men and their vision of women. This serves white, western men’s interests:

“In contemporary Western patriarchal culture, the permanent sexual accessibility of women’s bodies to men is symbolised by imposing a specific set of harmful cultural practices onto women: makeup, high heels, revealing clothing, and so on. As a result, the veil is intolerable to white, Western men because it communicates the message that the women wearing it are not sexually accessible to them – they are the property of brown men. The issue of the veil is fundamentally an issue of men fighting over sexual access to women.

“As a result, when Western feminists speak out against the veil in Western contexts, no matter how well intentioned, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of working for white men’s interests – their interest in gaining sexual access to brown women as well as white women, and their interest in gaining control over brown men by stealing “their” women from them. This allows men to divide us according to men’s own standards: how sexually accessible we are to them.”

 

From the January open letter to the headscarf conflict

The French headscarf debate is deeply linked to the January open letter through the ideology of universalism. While the letter does not specifically mention the issue of the headscarf, it does state that the #metoo movement, “far from helping women to become independent, in reality serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, religious extremists, the worst reactionaries…” It is highly significant that “religious extremists” are cited as key enemies of sexual freedom, and this is without doubt a reference to the conflict over the headscarf and Islam more generally in France. The aim is to group women and feminists who denounced sexual assault through the #metoo campaign with women and feminists who denounce the racist anti-headscarf laws in France, and, by associating them with extremist religion, to dismiss them entirely. Unfortunately, the anti-headscarf laws are so widely supported in France that this is a highly effective tactic.

The London-based French reporter Agnès Poirier explicitly makes this link in an article that largely, if cautiously, defends the open letter:

“In France today, different feminist groups coexist: the main one is a feminism following the steps of De Beauvoir, one that is not at war with men but rather with machismo culture, gender inequality and the inherent misogyny of religions.

“And there is a rather recent American import of feminism, one that often comes across as opportunistic and “man-hating”, one that turns a blind eye to religious misogyny, for instance defending the wearing of the hijab.”

Who are these groups that Poirier refers to? The first group is that of Deneuve et al., those who signed and supported the January’s open letter. The second group is that of the women who, for the past few months, have been speaking out massively against the frighteningly frequent sexual assault that women experience on a daily basis, once again dismissed based in part on the (inaccurate) claim that they “[defend] the wearing of the hijab”.[5]

This analysis of the conflict over the headscarf in France reveals the centrality of sexual libertarianism (or sexual access to women on men’s terms) to French Universalism. As explained above, according to this doctrine the entirety of the French population is supposed to experience reality as it is defined by white, bourgeois, French men – we could say, through a kind of typically French male gaze. Relations between women and men are envisaged through the lens of this French male gaze, whose aim is men’s unlimited sexual access to women. This aim is then imposed on everyone.[6] According to this perspective, men’s sexual liberty (i.e., unlimited sexual access to women) should be women’s priority.

Since women and men are supposedly equal in France, feminism has no right to exist. According to this logic, to continue to pursue this unnecessary course of action is at best useless and at worst, actively harmful. Since, according to universalists, the oppression of women by men does not exist in France, if feminist claims are being made in France it must be because they have been imported from the USA.

 

French universalism and male sexual access to women

So, the “feminists” who defend sexual freedom on men’s terms are the same who apply French Universalism to the issue of the headscarf. This is very clearly visible in the words of Elisabeth Lévy, one of the signatories to the January open letter, commenting on the attacks on Maryam Pougetoux during a TV show:

“The debate [about Pougetoux] has not been over a question of rights, but over what has happened over the past fifty years. What has happened to a student union in the past fifty years? May 1968 began over an affair of the mixing of the sexes [when male students at Nanterre University rioted because they did not have access to female dormitories]. Today, to see a veiled woman representing students, to see the same union organising women-only meetings appals me. I find it extraordinarily tragic, and the fact that she also doesn’t understand that this veil in public life is a symbol that for many of her fellow citizens is considered as a symbol of separatism. And it is a symbol of separatism, or at the very least a display of sexual separatism…”

Given the sexual libertarianism of French Universalism evident in the headscarf conflict, it is worth asking what exactly the authors of the January open letter mean by “sexual freedom”. This is not a difficult question to answer; it is quite clear from the letter itself. In its first paragraph, the authors characterise the naming of sexual assault as puritanical and as a way to turn women into eternal victims. Feminism is dangerous because it takes power away from men, turning them into victims; women can never be victims no matter what we suffer. The letter goes on to denounce feminist campaigns against a variety of pornographic depictions of women and girls or of male violence in art and cinema, literary editors’ requests to authors to write less sexist books, and Swedish attempts to introduce laws facilitating sexual consent. It claims that sexual impulses are inherently “aggressive and wild”, that women can enjoy being sexual objects for men and not be traumatised by sexual assault. This part of the letter explicitly defends a number of men from the world of art and cinema, whose art serves to banalise, legitimise and glorify violence against women and girls.

The final paragraph of the letter begins: “As women, we do not recognise ourselves in this feminism which, beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes on the guise of the hatred of men and of sexuality”. By now, it is obvious whose sexuality, whose sexual freedom, is at issue: it is men’s. Rather than a conservative sexuality based on the confinement of women in marriage, it is the kind of sexuality claimed by men during the 1960s’ sexual revolution in the US and many other Western countries. And similarly, what lies behind the various attacks on women wearing the headscarf this year is these women’s presumed rejection (in French men’s eyes) of this Western-style sexual liberation.

As Andrea Dworkin wrote in her 1983 book Right-wing women, the 1960s sexual revolution was organised by men, in their interests and according to their rules. Women, hoping to be able to live life differently to their mothers and thinking that these men would destroy sex hierarchy, accepted these rules. These women hoped for genuine liberation, but the sexual practices that were imposed on them then, and that still are today (such as group sex, polyamory, prostitution, pornography, BDSM) did not in any way break down the hierarchy among the sexes, nor did they halt violence against women. As Dworkin writes:

“Empirically speaking, sexual liberation was practiced by women on a wide scale in the sixties and it did not work: that is, it did not free women. Its purpose – it turned out – was to free men to use women without bourgeois constraints, and in that it was successful.”

The January open letter and the attacks on Caroline de Haas, Mennel Ibtissem, Maryam Pougetoux and countless other women whose stories did not make it into the media, represent once again the universalisation of the perspective of white bourgeois men and its imposition on all other members of society. They demonstrate the distance between those who have the unquestionable right to liberté, égalité and fraternité and everyone else, who must fight to obtain these rights, and who in the process of doing so may be violently attacked with impunity.

 

Defining the basis of a feminism that takes into account all forms of oppression

The January open letter was written in ignorance of centuries, if not millennia, of women’s struggle to create a form of sexuality that is not harmful to us, that is not defined by and does not serve the interests of men. The attacks on the other women discussed in this essay similarly represent the repression of women’s struggles to define our own reality outside the sexual libertarian framework defined by white, western men. Sadly, the participation of many women (some of them women of color) in all of the events discussed here demonstrates that attempts at universalisation of men’s perspective has been at least partially successful; and it shows that we as women must find ways to discuss sexuality outside of the terms set by men.

More positively, we can see that these various anti-feminist and racist attacks on women and the resistance to them are an expression of a conflict over what feminism should look like. Thanks to the #metoo movement, many women who have never had the chance to do so are speaking out about sexual assault. More and more women (both women of colour and white) are speaking out against misogynist racism against women wearing the headscarf. All over the world, women are building feminist movements of different kinds, experimenting with different ways to challenge male power and fight against all the different forms of oppression faced by women. We are struggling to define feminism as a movement by women, for women, that fights against every aspect of patriarchy. These attacks can be seen as a response to the growing power of feminism, and as men’s attempt to seize control over a movement that is beginning to present a genuine threat. The backlash is strong because the movement is growing.

 

By Catherine and Sarah

Thanks to Ferial, Sucheta, Jodie, and the number of other women who read this article in earlier stages.

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[1] Chiche expressed similar ideas in a 2012 article entitled “Is there an eternal feminine?” published in the magazine Sciences Humaines, in which she praises Sastre’s work.

[2] This statement was reported in the English-language press as “women can enjoy being raped”, presumably because the word Lahaie used, “jouir”, is ambiguous; in the wider context of the interview it seems that she is referring to orgasm, but the word “jouir” has positive connotations strongly implying enjoyment, making its use in the context of rape extraordinarily inappropriate. Following this statement, one of the authors of the open letter stated that the other authors and signatories did not support Lahaie’s statement.

[3] Amongst Causeur’s many claims to anti-feminist fame is its publication in 2013 of a petition entitled “Hands off my whore! The manifesto of the 343 bastards”. This petition, created in protest of the introduction of laws criminalising the buying of women in prostitution in France, was signed by men who admitted to having bought prostituted women. The petition’s title makes reference to the 1971 “Manifesto of the 343”, a historic document of the French Women’s Liberation Movement calling for the legalisation of abortion in France and signed by 343 women (including Catherine Deneuve and Simone de Beauvoir) who admitted to having had an illegal abortion.

[4] For the sake of clarity, in this article we will focus primarily on the racist and sexist manifestations of this ideology.

[5] It is worth noting that Poirier’s vision of the divisions within feminism in France is identical to that of many of those who participated in the condemnation of Maryam Pougetoux in May (including government ministers): for them, the idea that a progressive organisation such as the left-wing student union UNEF could elect a woman wearing the headscarf was unthinkable. The only way they could find to resolve what they saw as a paradox was to conclude that UNEF is not progressive.

[6] The first word of the French national motto liberté, égalité, fraternité  (liberty, equality, fraternity) can, in light of this analysis, be interpreted as an obligation to “liberty” as envisioned through the French male gaze: i.e., that women must be sexually “liberated” and available to white French men (the problems with égalité and fraternité should require no further explanation at this point).