French Muslim women: the `infidels’ of the Republic

by Kamal Ahamada

When four armed policemen surrounded a Muslim woman lying down fully dressed at the beach of Nice and forcing her to strip off for the reason that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”, it was reminiscent of a morality police enforcing so-called shariah law in Aceh.

Five years ago, on a journey through Muslim-majority countries, I stopped in Aceh, a region located at the northern end of Sumatra Island but also known for its implementation of the so-called Sharia law. Aceh is a place ravaged by decades of civil war, natural disaster (tsunami) and exploited by international oil companies such as Exxon. I was only interested in the functioning of the Sharia law rather than the impact of the tsunami on the population or the ongoing civil tensions or the Western interferences in the region. I was wrong. I quickly found out that all of this was interconnected. It is actually the whole context that gave birth to what I named emotional sharia after one of the Acehnese activists I met rightly named it reactionary Sharia – a set of discriminative laws (generally against women) supposedly inspired by Islam but which are actually enforced as an ideological tool for a social and political control. It is usually implemented after a traumatic event or as a form of cultural resistance either to Western imperialism or as an `ethical’ alternative to what is perceived an “immoral society” or a “kafir way of life’. That is why under sharia law special morality brigades patrol the city, searching to criminalize every little thing they consider un-Islamic: from non-married couple holding hands to teens knees `nudity’. When caught the “shameless bastards” get either a heavy fine or a corporal punishment in public space, depending on the gravity of the `crime.’

Now, what Aceh’s Sharia law has to do with France’s attempt to ban the burkini?

Just like Aceh’s sharia laws, the laicite (a stricter form of secularism) has become an ideological concept of oppression to further pursue a political agenda. In the case of Aceh, the `sharia law’ is an instrument of social control and repression through the propagation of fear. It limits group gathering in public spaces and suppresses political activism that tries to obtain a fair distribution of Aceh’s natural resources and possibly gain autonomy from the central Indonesian government.

In the French case, the discriminative practices against Muslims find its legitimacy under the question of security and under the concept of laicite. Since 9/11, the argument of security greatly contributed to creation of other secular laws such as the definitive ban of the veil in public schools, the burqa in public spaces, and other similar decisions, the latest being the ban of the burkini, which continues to be enforced in many of the French cities, despite the ruling of the highest administrative court that such ban “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty”. In addition to these laws, the last terrorist attacks on the French soil have activated an old colonial policy, the emergency law, that makes every aspect of Muslims’ social and private life unbearable. Muslims are now more than ever under strict surveillance and hundreds of abuses by the French government have been reported by human rights organizations.

Regarding the application of laicite, this is just a distortion of the 1905 law which actually permits religious expression in public spaces as long as one does not proselytize his/her belief. Apparently, in France, a Muslim headscarf and now the burkini are seen as a serious threat to national security and to Republican values. Apparently, Frenchness as a way of life is an endangered value, hence the deployment of patriotic commandos patrolling French beaches and making sure that boobies and G-strings proudly show off the greatness of a freedom so much envied by the rest of the world. This is the new laicite, an armed branch of secularism or the secular version of Wahhabis ideology. The police now act as a morality brigade and take their role very seriously: stripping off, disciplining and punishing. Not very new for those familiar with police brutality in France. And white men forcing brown women to undress is like a Déjà vu for older generations of postcolonial migrants.

Just like in Aceh, when a French Muslim “infidel” gets caught, he/she gets a heavy fine or corporal punishment combined with public shaming. The Muslim French woman on the beach was an “infidel” of the Republic. She was caught in flagrante delicto by the special secular forces or SSF to make it short. The infidel Muslim woman has soiled the purity of one of the most sacred places of the secular: the beach, historically a feminist battlefield. Threatened to be gazed if resistant, she obeyed without causing trouble. Gazing can be fatal indeed. She wisely avoided corporal lynching while silently accepting public shaming accentuated by the cheers of the crowd, a wound that will probably never heal. As for me, the images of this woman surrounded by four threatening policemen is symbolic of our living experiences as Black, Arab or Muslim living in France: a constant psychological and physical intimidation, an explicit message – “not welcome here”.

In Aceh, I haven’t directly witnessed public punishment but I have listened to the painful stories and humiliating experiences of my local friends and female Muslim activists that I have met there. I observed the quietness of a society psychologically devastated by years of natural and political violence. The religious zeal is probably a means to overcome a collective trauma but unfortunately, some turn it into a weapon against their own people. Surely a wound does not heal another wound.

The same can be said about France. From the times of Enlightenment, France has fallen back to darkness and this is perhaps the trauma she tries to deal with now. What we are witnessing might be the open manifestation of a long contained anger and deception of a country that is falling apart. And all these frustrations are projected to the Muslim community, in particular. This is unfortunately not specific to France. The most recent poll in the UK has shown a growing support for banning the burqa and even the burkini. This might come as a surprise for both British and French Muslims who always saw England as a more tolerant society but the decline of Europe and Brexit reveal just how fragile the basic principles of Western democracies actually are.

Secular oppression has few things in common with religious fanatics. Forcing women to cover up in the name of religion is just as totalitarian as forcing them to uncover in the name of secularism. In its bid to outlaw, any religious presence in public sphere France has sacralised its secularism and thus created its own fanatic religion – laicism. And when the sacred becomes dogmatic, a fascist ideology prevails.

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Kamal Ahamada is an educator, traveller, and activist who grew up in France, studied in Denmark and is now based in London. He holds a teacher degree and a M.A in postcolonial studies. He is co-founder of educational- intercultural NGO, “the M.A.D. project” that aims to counter stereotypes and challenge mainstream narratives about marginalized/discriminated communities through creative workshops.

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