by Nadia Atia  

In the early hours of Wednesday 18 November, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, aged 26, of Moroccan origin, was killed in an explosion in Paris. Initial news coverage of the young woman’s final hours branded her ‘Europe’s First Suicide Bomber’ and stressed a hedonistic life (see for example the Independent). In some reports, brief mentions were made of a childhood lacking in love or stability, and an adolescence devoid of religious faith. Newspapers quoted neighbours, friends and acquaintances who remembered Aït Boulahcen as a vivacious, if somewhat vulnerable, young woman, often seen in jeans and a cowgirl hat or cap before her decision to begin wearing various forms of hijab in recent months. It was later reported that Aït Boulahcen did not in fact detonate her own vest, indeed she may not have been wearing a suicide vest at all, but that the force of a blast, detonated by a male suicide bomber, scattered her body into the street. Widely circulating accounts of her spine, her head, or other parts of her body landing on the police car outside were corrected later still by reports asserting that her corpse had in fact been delivered intact to a local hospital. Unlike the initial reports, the corrections have been released quietly and have been far from front page news. At every stage, her body and its fate have been central to representations of her, and of the siege of Saint-Denis.

The astonishing level of misinformation that surrounds Aït Boulahcen’s final hours, and the emphasis on her corporeality, speaks of a continued fixation on the body of Muslim woman that has its roots in orientalist and imperialist ideologies, which saw the oriental female as overtly sexualised, despite, or perhaps because of, her often hidden form. For a brief period, pictures of another Moroccan woman posing seductively in the bath were circulated in the press as images of Hasna Aït Boulahcen because she bore a ‘passing resemblance’. These have now been acknowledged to be erroneous, but their broad circulation too is a reflection of the continued orientalist homogenisation of the Middle Eastern female body (initial coverage was mainly by the Daily Mail, see corrections for example from the Huffington Post). Representations of Aït Boulahcen’s life and death betray an extraordinarily myopic view of Europe’s role in shaping the modern Middle East. While part of the appeal of Hasna Aït Boulahcen’s story was the novelty of a purported female suicide bomber in Europe, the involvement of women in violent attacks against European powers, and the fixation with their bodies, is nothing new – especially not in France.

On 30 September 1956 three Algerian women Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired and Samia lakhdari planted bombs in central French-controlled Algiers. Only two of the bombs laid by the Algerian women terrorists (to use today’s parlance) exploded in an area popular with families (Horne, A Savage War of Peace , pp.185-186). Algiers was once one of three Algerian provinces designated a Departement, an integral part of France. As Benjamin Stora writes, after 1871 ‘Algeria had to become a mere continuation of France on the other side of the Mediterranean. An Algeria made up of three French Departments would forever ‘Gallicize’ the territories’ (Stora, p. 6.). The blasts killed three people and severely injured over fifty, including a number of children. This bombing, like the appalling attacks in Paris on 13 November, primarily targeted civilians and was designed to instil fear in the established French settler community in Algiers, known as pieds noirs.

In Algeria, the French mission civilisatrice understood the hijab, or haik, as oppressive, and unveiling as a central tenet of women’s emancipation; ironically the result was that the veil became a symbol of nationalist defiance, as Frantz Fanon describes in ‘Algeria Unveiled’(see Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialsim and Marina Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence). Women who had stopped wearing it re-veiled themselves in order to show their solidarity with the FLN, but most emphatically to reject a version of emancipation so closely allied with a paternalist colonial gaze. The papers have traced Hasna Aït Boulahcen’s choice of clothing from ‘normal’ (the word recurs in news coverage of her last movements) or western, attire, to a decision to begin wearing the jilbab (a loose garment covering much of her body), and finally to her donning of the niqab, which also covered her face. The decision to conceal more and more of her body is directly paired with an escalation of her involvement in the terrorist cell in the press. Pictures of her imitating poses of premature paramilitary victory begin to take the place of pouting teenage selfies on social media, but in both cases Hasna Aït Boulahcen imitates familiar, unnatural poses, which appropriate her body to an exploitative patriarchal discourse, be they terrorist or glamour girl.

Memoria-n26-107_0
amia Lakhdari, Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired et Hassiba Ben Bouali. Photo prise par Ali la Pointe, en 1957

In a reversal of the process by which we have been led to believe that Hasna Aït Boulahcen was drawn into a terrorist cell, the women chosen for the Algerian operation needed to remove their hijabs, donning summer dresses and tinting their hair in order to ‘pass’ as European or ‘normal’ in the language of today’s newspapers. This parodic enactment of colonial ideologies of women’s emancipation itself seemed to strike at the very heart of French imperial life in Algeria. A number of publications reflected that Aït Boulahcen had had casual relationships, and had enjoyed alcohol and clubbing, rarely frequenting mosques and showing little or no interest in Islamic teaching or practices. Several go so far as to say that she had a ‘bad reputation’. Conversely, Horne points out that the sexual allure of the Algiers bombers was central to their ability to carry out their mission and suggests that Zohra Drif eluded capture at a French checkpoint because she flirted with her interrogator (186). In both cases the sexuality of the women is crucial to representations of their militancy; in each their bodies are a grotesque spectacle to be appropriated by any manner of convenient, often misogynist, political discourses.

Though she was made famous because she represented a new threat, the elevation of Hasna Aït Boulahcen to post-mortem ignominious celebrity points us to a very old fear. The body of the veiled Muslim woman is the most visible deviation from western norms of dress, and as such it is often mistakenly read as the most obvious symbol of the failure of integration. The furore and continued morbid fascination surrounding the fate of Aït Boulahcen’s body tells us far more about its symbolism as a sign of danger to European ways of life, than it does about how and why vulnerable young people are being drawn to the ideologies of violent fundamentalist movements. Nearly 60 years after the bombing in Algiers, far from representing a new threat to French society, the disturbing case of Hasna Aït Boulahcen points us to a corrosive and violating continuity in Europe’s relationship with its others.

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Nadia Atia is lecturer in World Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Find her on twitter @AtiaNadia

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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3 thoughts on “Your fascination with Muslim women’s bodies has a long misogynistic history

  1. Right. Islam objectives women in it’s very act of covering their bodies, by making them the catalyst for men’s lust and lack of self-control. Damned if you do…damned if you don’t.

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  2. It’s an important discussion and a good analysis of the discourse.
    I’d like to add how this discourse mixes racism, islamophobia AND western feminism.
    A crucial point for me is the decosntruction of western feminism with regards to non-western society. A mistake that was made and that is still being made is to take our struggles and also our victories and transplant them 1:1 on other societies without taking into account that we are no longer the oppressed group but part of the oppressor.
    Yes, we fought for the right to show our bodies. We fought for the right to take offo ur corsets and breathe freely, to get rid of a million skirts, to wear our hair open or to cut it off, to show our ankles, calves, thighs, butts, titts. It is a good fight and it continues.
    But it is not a fight without problems within mainstream western societies and contexts as this getting rid of all the fabric also caters to the male gaze and serves to justify violence against women in the good old patriarchal victim blaming formula that the right amount of fabric would have been whatever you were wearing when you were assaulted plus 1.
    When this is now transplanted to discourses about women of coulour, muslim women, the demand to undress is the demand made by the male gaze AND the coloniser, even though that coloniser is a feminist.
    The act of undressing and showing your titts can be an act of rebellion and resistance, but so can be to cover your hair. Seeing any muslim woman with any kind of headscarf/veil* I can only assume that she’s probably muslim. I cannot deduce anything about her reasons, or beliefs about women and female bodies.

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