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Race, caste and gender in France

Criminalizing Islam in the name of feminism is fundamentally paradoxical: Anti-racism and anti-sexism must work together. 

 

protest march on immigration centre

The subject of this text is the situation of the descendants of ex-colonized North African immigrants in contemporary France – a condition that everyone admits is ‘problematic’. My hypothesis is that today in France we are witnessing the creation of a system of racial castes. Sociologists and political scientists in France do not use the concept of ‘castes’, whether they are Marxists or otherwise. However, in my view this concept is of some use for explaining the specific place of racial oppression within the class system: for which the concept of racism is insufficient. Indeed, while the concept of racism lays emphasis on process, ‘caste’ instead stresses the results of this process, in terms of the social structure. It struck me that the situation of the descendants of these immigrants has not followed the same processes as other immigrant groups’ descendants, and that they have ‘inherited’ their parents’ social inferiority.

I will try to demonstrate this social ‘immobility’ of the so-called ‘Maghrebian’ [North African] group, and identify some of its mechanisms, including the aggravation of the racism against them. I will also examine the way in which the social construct ‘race’ is articulated with that other social construct known as ‘sex’. These social constructs are built in the same way, through domination and for the purposes of domination, though they obviously take distinct forms. The debate on the Islamic headscarf does play some role in this interaction and interlinking of sexism and racism, but mostly as a telling moment of crisis.

Indeed, this situation is not a static one, and the crisis over the headscarf is typical of the dynamic of oppression in general, and thus also of ‘racial’ oppression. We can see it as a repressive response to a rebellion. But this rebellion itself followed a period of oppression. This sequence — oppression, rebellion, repression — explains the dynamic behind the treatment of ‘immigrants and their descendants’. I also see this sequence as a French tragedy, since the rebellion should have led to liberation, and not the increased oppression that resulted from its repression.

In each of these phases, the thing that interests me is the way in which gender — a caste system based on the invention of different sexes — is used to construct a caste system based on the invention of different races.

Act I: oppression

Since the beginning of colonisation, the question of sex, or gender, set the dividing line between the two ‘communities’ that were thus created. According to the colonial power’s racist stereotype, the indigenous North African men ‘treated women badly’. Polygamy in particular was considered a sign or even the sign of indigenous men’s ‘backwardness’, even though it was in fact an uncommon practice.

‘Muslim French’ status had the effect of subjecting the women of this community to a civil code for marriage, parentage and inheritance called ‘personal status’, which was considered to be ‘trailing behind’ the French code. Nonetheless, we should emphasise here that apart from the question of polygamy the French civil code of that era — between 1830 and 1962 – was hardly any less detrimental to women than the Muslim French one was, especially before the Second World War.

Thus gender — which establishes a hierarchical division splitting the human species into two opposed categories, men and women — served as the dividing line for a further separation, between two ‘ethnicities’. And these, too, were fabricated by domination — in this case, colonial domination.

Indeed, one central point is systematically passed over in silence in studies on colonisation and in today’s studies on racism or discrimination. Namely, that the relations between the colonising society and the colonised society are also the relations between two patriarchies. The protagonists of the colonial conflict on both sides were men. In each of the two societies, only men had the status of subjects; women were objects, property. It is logical enough that the coloniser wanted to dispossess the indigenous men of their most precious possession, indeed the last one that was left to them: women. A nineteenth-century French official cited by Frantz Fanon said, ‘If we are to strike against Algerian society’s capacity to resist, then we must first of all conquer their women’, adding, ‘We have to go and find these women, under the veils they hide behind.’

In fact, the French did nothing to help North African women. But they did carry out a few ‘un-veiling’ campaigns during the Algerian war, already back then under the pretext of ‘liberating women’. In reality, the purpose of these campaigns — like the rapes committed by soldiers or the use of ‘lascivious’ native women in brothels — was to demoralize the Algerian men by ‘stealing’ their last bit of property: women. And since the colonizer blared the trumpets of women’s liberation in the interest of destroying the autochthonous identity, those fighting for independence logically enough rejected it, presenting the maintenance and strengthening of the hierarchy between the sexes as a constituent part of their national project.

Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on TerrorSeparate and Dominate: feminism and racism after the war on terror Three historical events created a problem for the so-called ‘people of European stock’ — which means whites — and there is one that they have still not managed to resolve. This immigration was long purely masculine, comprising men only. But the immigrants who wanted to go back often found that they couldn’t; then, in 1974, the law on family reunion allowed them to bring their wives to France. Finally, the French nationality law, despite the changes made to it, kept the element of jus soli, and their children became French. French society had not foreseen this series of events. It did not see that the combination of family reunion and jus soli would place it in a situation where the children of former colonial subjects theoretically have exactly the same rights as any other French citizen.

French society only offers them the same status as their parents had, while these children of the Republic, sure of their rights, demand their due as French citizens — and they insist on this ever more noisily and ever more ‘arrogantly’, as the minister Xavier Darcos put it. This is what Farad Khosrokhavar  called the ‘misunderstanding’ between French society and the descendants of immigrants; I would call it France’s dilemma. France does not want to accept them, but nor can it send them ‘back home’, because they have no home other than France. Having to find a third way — obstinately refusing to accept them, but unable to kick them out — it has tried to uphold and strengthen a caste system. And one of the ways of doing so is to criminalise Islam.

After the war, immigrants were treated more or less as they had been when they were colonized. But as guest workers they made few demands (though an ‘Arab Workers’ Movement’ existed between 1945 and the beginning of the Algerian war). They accepted the hardest jobs, the lowest salaries and being penned into the bidonville slums. Their only goal was to be able to send money back home and build a house there. Keeping their heads down and putting up with racism was just the price they had to pay for the eventual recompense of being able to return to Algeria. This light at the end of the tunnel kept them going, even if they didn’t all get there. This explains their patience, their humility and their resignation to practising their religion in cellars rather than mosques. Today French people are nostalgic for this Islam – of which they were ignorant when it did exist – honouring it with the label ‘traditional’, as if it were a Camembert AOC.  Except that here ‘traditional’ doesn’t mean ladle-moulded, but invisible. The best Islam, in a way: in any case the only suitable one, i.e., the only one that suits us. But the hope of recompense that allowed the immigrant parents to put up with this situation does not exist for their descendants. Yet it seems that the immigrant status of the parents of Maghrebians and Africans has been passed down across the generations, both materially and in terms of other people’s perceptions. That is, they still imagine that these people are destined one day to leave French territory. And when people inherit exactly the same status that their parents had, with no probability or even possibility of social mobility, then what we’re dealing with is a caste situation, not a class situation. That’s what’s now being created in France. We even see it in language: when we speak of ‘second-’ or even ‘third-generation immigrants’, we transform the immigrant condition – which is, by definition, temporary — into a hereditary and almost biological trait.

This racism has long been made light of, understood as a matter of certain people’s overtly racist attitudes and not in terms of the objective treatment of the population concerned.  But we do know that this population suffers enormous discrimination, whether in housing, education, or employment or in terms of judicial repression.

Hardly ever studied, however, is the mental suffering that racism induces in its victims. This was very clear during the debate ‘on the veil’. Discrimination was only mentioned as an afterthought to the discussion, in the euphemised form of references to ‘failed integration’. Moreover, such ‘failures’ were attributed to the discriminated-against population itself, allegedly having chosen to live ‘among themselves’ twenty miles from the city centre and refusing to mix in with ‘people of French stock’, seemingly out of snobbery. This common-sense point of view was also the official stance of the Interior Ministry.

As for those concerned, they know well enough that society excludes them. In the 1980s they organised an imposing ‘march for equality’ across the whole country. But the movement was recuperated by the Parti Socialiste, which created SOS-Racisme for the purposes of neutralising these protests . . . and succeeded in doing so. This respectful, ‘properly French’ revolt — with its secular, republican protests — failed lamentably.

Act II: rebellion

Thus the bitterness caused by this failure compounded this population’s bitter everyday experience of racism. They played the game, and it didn’t work.

The Franco-French are no longer concerned with discrimination or ghettos. Rather, they’re preoccupied by the integration or non-integration of youths of North African origin. But the meaning they attribute to the word ‘integration’ is biased: in TV reports and political statements, this always refers to how much effort the children of Maghrebians are making to fully resemble the children of Bretons or Auvergnats. Sometimes they manage without too much trouble; at other times, they have to renounce their own identity. For example, talking about your childhood is an important part of sociability. In the case of Bretons and Auvergnats it is allowed or even encouraged, with people from rural areas and city-dwellers marvelling at the similarities and differences between their respective experiences. But no one’s interested in your Arab parents: you’d best not mention them. This population is thus caught in a formidable double bind: they are called on to show that they’re ‘the same’ but they are perceived and labeled as ‘different’. Whatever they do, in the end they always fail the exam, and they will never manage to satisfy the criteria of Frenchness. The unspoken reality is that these criteria exclude anyone of Maghrebian or African origin by definition.

Several generations obeyed these contradictory racist and sexist injunctions, which exhort the dominated to erase and yet simultaneously be comfortable with their ‘difference’. But that changed when some of them understood that this whole game deliberately sets out to exhaust them physically and mentally; that the ‘difference’ they’re labeled with is nothing other than an inferior status; and that they cannot be at ease with this difference unless they accept their own inferiority, which they can’t shake off because — according to racism’s essentialist thinking — it is indelibly inscribed on their bodies. Ultimately, they discover that there is a hidden clause: inclusion has a racial condition that they could never satisfy, because they aren’t of the right race.

What can the people and groups caught in this kind of double bind do about it? What do you do when you are attacked for your appearance, your parents, and your origins: all the things for which you aren’t responsible and cannot change? Well, you can either live in shame, or else revolt against this injustice. You can either kneel down and accept defeat, or else turn around and face your aggressors. Facing up to them means asserting what you are attacked for, refusing to be ashamed. And this is what French society terms ‘communitarian’ reactions, which supposedly deserve condemnation. Why? Because when the dominant assigned these identities to the dominated, they did so in order to make them accept their inferior status; and not so that the dominated could make use of these identities in order to rebuild their self-esteem destroyed by racism or sexism.

For a decade now the descendants of immigrants have been rejecting the idea that their origins are a source of shame; they assert an ‘Arabness’ and an Islam ‘made in France’, created as a response to exclusion. Some might call this ‘identitarian’, or a mark of pride, or anti-racism; but certainly it does not stand in contradiction with their rights and demands as citizens. If the dominant society sees this self-assertion as subversive, that’s because it’s a means by which the dominated resist internalising an inferior status, and repair what Goffman called a ‘damaged identity’. But the dominant society wants the dominated to hold onto a damaged identity; this being one of the conditions of perpetuating their exploitation.

The Franco-French thought that the descendants of immigrants would simply accept stepping into their parents’ shoes: they were shocked when the children of immigrants took seriously the paperwork telling them they were French.

What is the role of gender in this caste system? After all, the hostility of this discourse is mainly directed against those perceived as the only subjects: men. Women are exempt from the worst stereotypes. The beurettes [female, ‘second generation immigrants’] are pleasant enough, unlike their brothers, the bad boys (or Arab boys — it’s the same difference, as Nacira Guénif-Souilamas tells us). That explains why they face an even more difficult dilemma than men do. Subjected to the double bind of integration, a test they cannot pass, women are also the target of a subliminal injunction. Indeed, these kindly beurettes are more pitied than blamed — that is, pitied for belonging to these men, these Arab fathers and Arab boys. And they’re told to abandon them. Some obey, leaving their families and neighbourhoods, only to find themselves isolated. After all, here, too, Franco-French society imposes the same double bind we saw earlier: it seeks and finds in these women the difference — in their names, their facial features or their accents — that marks them as essential inferiority, their ‘human stain’. So as Christelle Hamel explains, these women are caught between the very real sexism of their own surroundings – a sexism exacerbated by counter-racism, that is, men taking pride in the machismo that they’re reproached for – and the dominant society’s desire to capture them from the men it still sees as its enemies. This was the context for the ‘headscarf controversies’ of 1989, 1994 and 2003, this latter case ultimately culminating in the ‘anti-veil law’. We cannot understand these controversies, nor the reasons underlying the persecution of schoolchildren who posed no problem to their teachers, unless we understand the prominent role of gender in this caste system.

We’ve seen that colonial ideology characterises Maghrebian, Arab and African men in terms of their relation to women; and the colonial strategy consists of condemning this culture as particularly sexist. At the same time, following a fine patriarchal logic, it tries to capture the women from these same backgrounds, symbolically, at least.

A good measure of this unspoken desire is the national joy whenever beurettes denounce Arab men, for example when gang rapes come to light. Collective rapes, which have always existed, have never captured public attention and we never hear them mentioned, any more than discussion of rape in general. But when this is going on among the North Africans in the banlieues, all France pretends to have discovered a phenomenon that was hitherto unknown in the Hexagon. And it exploits the differentness imposed on Arabs in order to crush in the womb any attempt to recognize and combat its own, purely autochthonous sexist barbarism. It uses circular reasoning to arrive at this conclusion: if they, who are different from us, are getting up to all this, then that’s evidence enough that it isn’t happening among our own kind. This sophism allows France to kill two birds with one stone: not only can it use it to condemn the ‘others’, but above all it can absolve itself of the sin now being ‘exposed’.

Here I ought to speak of what I think are the reasons why the sight of a few headscarves has plunged France into what Emmanuel Terray has called ‘political hysteria’.

The colonized deserved to be colonized because they were uncivilized and had a barbarous culture based on a barbarous religion; and their treatment of their women was proof of this barbarism. The colonized women, the victims of their men — unlike civilized men, who only kill six of their women a month (at least) — were thus the colonisers’ natural allies, if only they would rally to the cause. If they did, then the colonized men would be deprived of their greatest support, and it would also prove how barbaric their treatment of women was. This hope still exists among the French, who treat immigrants like colonial subjects and the children of the colonized as immigrants. In reality, the women are radicalised just as much as the men: discriminated against and humiliated every day.

When women wearing the headscarf appeared, the French were shocked — politicians, journalists and secular activists repeated ad infinitum — because they are so attached to equality between men and women. One reader of the LDH (Human Rights League) bulletin even wrote that ‘the headscarf tears a hole in equality between the sexes’. It was here that I first learned that women in France are men’s equals. But enough pleasantries. I don’t believe that the French are shocked by the absence of something that doesn’t exist, and which they don’t really want to exist. Yes, they were ‘assaulted’, as Chirac put it: the appearance of these women in headscarves upset their unspoken, irrational hopes.

Effectively, they refused to live with the descendants of Arabs, but also couldn’t just drive them into the sea. Faced with this unanswerable dilemma they hatched a plan: if they took these women, even taking them as their wives – as Emmanuel Todd predicted a decade ago — then given that women are nothing more than receptacles for men’s semen, this ‘race’ would soon disappear. This plan – which in France is unconscious rather than explicit – has been the basis of government policies enacted in other racist countries. For example, in the 1950s Brazil had an explicit policy of encouraging mixed marriages in order to ‘whiten’ the population.

But the headscarf told the Franco-French that their dream of dividing the descendants of immigrants along gender lines was finished. These women would not reject their fathers, brothers and husbands. They did not believe in the image of the triumphant, emancipated beurette; they knew they were subject to the same racism as the men. If the headscarf provoked such strong, apparently disproportionate reactions, it was because it was itself such a strong message, a nightmare called ‘the return of the repressed’.

Such were the boomerang effects of French society’s blatant discrimination against these women. The headscarf tells this society: ‘You have marginalised us and penned us in, you tell us we’re different, well, look: now we are different.’ The ‘veiled’ woman is the alien landing in our midst. But this alien does not only challenge the ‘French integration model’. This alien causes such malaise because her mere presence suddenly makes us see so-called ‘sexual liberation’ for what it is: the obligation for every woman to be ‘desirable’ at each and every moment. And women wearing the headscarf contravene this obligation. As Samira Bellil remarked in an interview a few months before her death, some men’s obsession with veiling us is only equalled by other men’s obsession with stripping us naked. These two obsessions are two symmetrical forms of one and the same negation of women: one wants women to arouse men’s desires all the time, while the other forbids them from doing so. But in both cases the reference point for women’s thinking and bodies is men’s desire. The headscarf unveils the fact that in our supposedly liberated epoch, a woman’s body is still not hers and hers alone.

Moreover, this alien makes Islam visible. Which the Franco-French can’t stand. Islam has only ever been tolerated in France on condition that it is discreet, preferably underground. And now these people are proud of it! There’s something that defies sense here-the dominant common sense, anyway. We saw the same incredulous outraged reactions over gay pride.

Domination is based on tolerance, which is the opposite of acceptance: that is, it rests on the idea that the practices or the very existence — or both — of the dominated, of the gay and lesbian, of the Muslim, are bad. But we let them exist all the same, so long as they admit that they’re in the wrong. And the proof that they admit it is that they’re ashamed. And the proof that they’re ashamed is that they hide. So when the dominated no longer hide, asserting that their existence or their practices are the equal of anyone else’s, they are trashing the rules of the game, breaking the contract that allows them to exist in the shadow of the dominant. So these latter have no other choice but to pull them back into line, putting them back in their place and showing them who’s boss. That’s what France did with the headscarf law.

However, the headscarf is just one skirmish in the war against Arabs, Africans and Muslims. The local system of domination – France’s caste system — is now compounded by its participation in a global project: the ‘war on terror’, which is in fact a war against the Arab and Muslim world. The partisans of the anti-headscarf law deftly linked the question of adolescents wearing the veil to the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism. French racism, without which these castes could not work, was thus strengthened by the myth of the dangers that the Muslim world posed. These attacks on the Arab and Muslim world are not new: for a long time Western essayists have been denouncing it as intrinsically incompatible with democracy, human rights, modernity, etc. In the 1970s, Bernard Lewis presented his theory of a clash of civilisations, though only with Samuel Huntington’s version did it really ‘take off’.

 

woman in hijab in paris Woman in hijab in Paris. Credit: Daniele Febei

Act III: repression

Thus the veil affair opened the third act of this French tragedy: after the first act (oppression) came the second act (rebellion); and the third act is the repression of this rebellion.

There is a striking parallel between this repression of pro-tests against injustice in France and the United States’ war without end after 9/11. Never asking itself any questions about its own responsibilities and the wrongs it has itself perpetrated, the West everywhere reacts to protests against the injustice it causes by aggravating the situation. It rejects dialogue and negotiation, always instead choosing intimidation and exemplary punishment. However, we could have imagined the third act turning out differently, very differently. We could have hoped that France would regain control of its senses, recognising its past and present wrongs against immigrants and their children, starting to redress these wrongs and deciding to eliminate racial discrimination; we could have hoped that it would finally get down to dismantling the patriarchal system rather than denying its existence; that it would put its own house in order rather than preaching to others; that it would stop setting women against the children of immigrants, and vice versa; in short, that it would finally adopt the path of equality, having already proclaimed it on the front is pieces of its town halls for some two hundred years. Can we still hope for or even imagine this happening? That’s the key question. Even if the third act is off to a bad start, the play is still not over yet. The future will tell us if we are headed toward the consolidation of the caste system or its disappearance.

But this question will not be resolved on French territory alone; for it is connected to the US war against the Arab and Muslim world. And we shouldn’t neglect the irrational or affective elements of France’s little war against the headscarf, nor of America’s big war: we are Westerners, and as Sophie Bessis tells us, the West’s culture is a ‘culture of supremacy’. This culture is reminiscent of the madness that the Greek gods inflicted on those they wanted to destroy. It is the origin of the double standards that the rest of the world criticises the West for, and it is the reason why rather than righting this wrong the West stubbornly presses on, aggravating its own situation. The spiral of oppression, revolt and repression is constantly accelerating and taking on ever-larger dimensions.

Faced with this whirlwind, for the moment at least the oppressed’s capacity to resist is weakened. One may fear that their patience is at an end, and that they will lose hope in the effectiveness of peaceful and legal protests when they see the barrier represented by the West’s combination of immoderation, irresponsibility, arrogance and the desire to dominate–in short, its hubris — in its current relations with the rest of the world.

Race, Caste and Gender in France is excerpted from Christine Delphy's  Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, published this month. .  

About the author

 

Christine Delphy is a French feminist writer, sociologist, and theorist. She cofounded, with Simone de Beauvoir, Nouvelles questions féministes, and is the author of Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression.


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