A picture really is worth a thousand words.
On 23 August 2016, I started off my day as usual by checking my virtual newspapers Twitter and Facebook, to update myself on current events. As I scrolled, images of armed policemen on a beach caught my attention. The images were of French police harassing a woman who was wearing what looked like to be a cover up with a hijab and demanding she undress herself.
Yes, you read that right. Armed police officers threatened a woman with assault if she did not undress herself. Meanwhile reports indicated that her young daughter cried as the incident took place while onlookers fueled the situation by telling the woman to “go home!”
Reactions on my social media feeds have hit the nail on the head. Articles posted mainly by Muslim women have perfectly encapsulated France’s deep-seated racism. While Muslims and women of color described the history behind the policing a woman’s body, I discovered only deafening silence from western feminists.
More than 30 towns in France banned the burkini, a woman’s full body wetsuit, arguing that it goes against French values of secularism and liberty. Essentially, the French believe that the amount of skin one shows determines one’s level of freedom.
Last I checked, liberation is not and cannot be measured by articles of clothing. Liberation is having the freedom to choose. Oppression is the inability to choose, in other words to be unjustly controlled. What happened in France was state-sanctioned oppression.
While France’s highest administrative court shot down the ban, it is important for us to recognize the ways in which state violence works against Muslim women. France has a deep history of racism and misogyny aimed primarily at people of color. In July, the government extended its state of emergency for another six months expanding the already wide “police powers of search, seizure, and detention.” The state of emergency has caused “hardships such as job losses, trauma to children, and damage to homes.” The greatest victims to this state of emergency are French Muslims.
France’s policing of Muslim women’s bodies has deep historical roots. French colonialist in Algeria printed posters with, “Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself.” The colonial rulers violently forced Algerian women to throw away their hijabs in war camps in efforts to westernize them. Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist and influential voice of postcolonial theory stated, “this woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer.”
French colonizers could not bear the sight of the veil as it remained a public display of women’s refusal to conform to the colonizers rules. It was a visible sign of resistance and the commitment to hold onto identity. For the French today, just like it was not too long ago, this symbol of nonconformity proves too dangerous and therefore must again be violently suppressed.
Want further proof that the burkini ban is racist? There has been no reported action taken against those who wear full body scuba suits, which are near identical to the burkini. In addition, authorities have not taken any steps to force catholic nuns to strip off their attire.
What is one of the most jarring things about this entire scenario is the near complete silence from Western feminists. Those who are first to exclaim the importance of being oneself, to having the liberty to choose how to present oneself; these are all the so-called feminists who have remained quiet.
What should be the rallying cry for feminists to band together as French patriarchy seeks to subdue Muslim women has barely caused a stir in the Western feminist circles.
Should I really be surprised though?
These are often the same women who mistakenly equate being naked with liberation. Again, liberation is not defined by what one wears or does not wear; it is defined by having the freedom to choose.
A great example to highlight the hypocrisy of western feminism is the U.S. war in Afghanistan. I was 12 when the war began, and I vividly remember Laura Bush leading the imperialist feminists in calling for the liberation of the Afghan women. Despite Afghan women’s organization, such as Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), explicitly saying war is not the answer, the western imperialist feminists equipped the warhawks with the “liberation” message, giving the green light to thousands of pounds of liberation to rain down on a land that had already experienced decades of war.
Western feminism enabled, and continues to enable, imperialism. It’s not here for our liberation. It only seeks to dictate how women of color and/or Muslim women should behave. It is nothing more than an extension of patriarchy.
The usual celebrity feminist vocals like Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift have remained silent. The French women on the beach who watched as authorities threatened the Muslim woman with pepper spray remained silent. It can only be summed up by a quote I found on Facebook by Susan Abulhawa: “All the ways women empower men to humiliate other women. Shame on every single woman on that beach who did nothing.”
And shame on every individual who presents him or herself as a defender of human rights who has remained silent as armed men stood over an unarmed women and threatened her with assault.
These images will remain etched in my mind. France, the state that claims to be a bastion of liberty, not only polices women’s bodies, but justifies it. While the ban may have been overturned, sadly the racism and ingrained Islamophobia in the country has not.
It won’t change with one law and it won’t happen overnight. There’s no quick solution to centuries old racism rather it’s a path of continued resistance against the oppressor. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So while I may not live in France and I may not wear a hijab, I will constantly fight for a woman’s right to do so.