"Muslims make up just 9 percent of the French population, yet 60 percent of its prison population—not all that different from Black people in the U.S. This affects Muslim women as well as men," said American activist Sharon Smith in an interview with Muslim Press.
The interview is presented below:
Muslim Press: President Hollande has criticized Islam, saying, "France is having issues with Islam." What's the root of these issues? Do you think France is obsessed with Islam?
Sharon Smith: Hollande’s comment demonstrates that Islamophobia in France is not only central to far-right and conservative political parties but also to the ruling Socialist Party, which is ostensibly “left-wing.” In other words, stoking racism against Muslim people is the policy of all wings of the French government. These officials, of course, justify these policies as a “response” to the series of terrorist attacks in France since 2015, beginning with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January of that year—which eventually led the government to impose the “State of Emergency” last November (which it has extended three times since).
But the provisions of the State of Emergency have little to do with actually fighting terrorism. Needless to say, Muslims—most of them of North African descent—have been the overwhelming majority of its victims. The State of Emergency has allowed French police agencies to conduct raids, including so-called “preventive” raids, on thousands of Muslim homes without judicial oversight, in the guise of fighting terrorism. Masked and armed police routinely enter Muslim homes and hold terrified family members captive while they search for “evidence. After these raids, hundreds of Muslim families have been placed under house arrest. Between November and August, according to the New York Times, the French government conducted over 3,600 such raids, yet only six of these raids even resulted in “terrorism related inquiries”—and only one led to an actual prosecution.
France’s obsession with Islam, as you correctly describe, is a product not of terrorism but of its colonial past and imperialist present. The government’s vile racism directed at its North African population—much of it composed of people from its former colonies who have migrated to France—long predates the recent terror attacks. Many of these supposed “outsiders” are actually French citizens whose families have lived in France for generations, yet they are targeted as “suspicious” merely because of the color of their skin or their manner of dress.
It is not a surprise that the French government has focused a significant part of its campaign against Islam by directing contempt toward women who practice hijab. France first banned headscarves in schools in 2004 and since then has banned burqas and, last summer, swimwear known as burkinis (a modest form of swimwear). France’s obsession with veiling harks back to its colonial days, (wrongly) equating the act of uncovering with women’s liberation. One example from France’s days as Algeria’s colonial master is a 1958 poster depicting an Algerian woman without a face veil speaking to a woman wearing a burqa, declaring, “Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself!”
France shared this obsession about veiled Muslim women with other colonial powers—and also with U.S. imperialism today—falsely equating the presence or absence of hijab as the measure of women’s progress toward equality. Colonial France was no different than George W. Bush’s imperialist U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which Bush justified as his desire to “liberate” Afghani women. The U.S. victory in Afghanistan was personified in 2001 by the image of a handful of smiling Afghan women lifting their veils in front of television cameras. Yet fifteen years later, Afghan women remain horribly oppressed by the U.S. sponsored government and the local fiefdoms that still rule Afghanistan.
MP: Hollande has suggested that Muslim women will "liberate themselves" under right conditions, adding that only in this way they could be Marianne [symbol of the French Republic]. What's your take on this?
Sharon Smith: According to Cambridge dictionary, the definition of liberation is “used to refer to activities connected with removing the disadvantages experienced by particular groups within society.” Presumably, those groups who experience such disadvantages should play the key role in deciding what their own liberation should look like. Muslim women—who experience racism, Islamophobia and sexism—should determine what are and are not the key elements of their liberation. This is certainly not the job of François Hollande, who plays such a central role in oppressing Muslim women in France.
Hollande’s own words betray his prejudices: “The veiled woman of today will be the Marianne of tomorrow … because, in a certain way, if we offer her the right conditions to blossom she will liberate herself from her veil and become a French woman... Ultimately, what are we betting on? That she will prefer freedom to subservience.” Hollande actually says here that Muslim women—even those with French citizenship—are not French if they choose to practice hijab. He also clearly states that veiling indicates a condition of subservience, from which Muslim women must be rescued (presumably by banning their right to practice hijab).
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (also from the Socialist Party) went a step further, declaring at a political rally on August 30, “Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” Ironically, most depictions of Marianne have her head covered with a Phrygian cap, “a soft, felt hat that symbolized freedom and the revolution,” according to the Guardian newspaper. It is also disputable that the symbol of Marianne’s breast is uncovered--since her image has been portrayed in different ways, sometimes uncovered and at other times fully covered.
These statements by Hollande and Valls reek of paternalism, racism and sexism. Why would Muslim women want to follow their guidance?
MP: Do you think this pressure on Muslim women to liberate themselves is justified?
Sharon Smith: Women cannot be “pressured” to liberate themselves because genuine liberation must come from the bottom up, not the top down. Should women who wear bikinis and prefer to be uncovered be pressured to “liberate themselves” from sexual objectification? I think we would all agree that such pressure would be absurd. All women suffer from some degree of oppression, in my opinion, but they need to determine the terms of their liberation when the time comes. In the meantime, no one else should have the right to make that determination for any woman—especially not those who are responsible for their oppression in the first place.
It also should be understood that all Muslims in France suffer from systematic discrimination in all walks of life, including lack of opportunities in employment, housing, and education,as well as overrepresentation in the prison system. Muslims make up just 9 percent of the French population, yet 60 percent of its prison population—not all that different from Black people in the U.S. This affects Muslim women as well as men. In the recent spate of police raids on Muslim households under the State of Emergency, entire families—including children—have been handcuffed and held at gunpoint for hours after police forcibly enter their apartments in the middle of the night. According to the New York Times, one woman reported having a miscarriage from the trauma, while another woman said she soiled herself in front of her children because police did not allow her to use the bathroom.
For Muslim women, any strategy for liberation must surely include the devastating affects of racism and police repression.
MP: What would be the impact of these moves on the Muslim community, especially Muslim women in France?
Sharon Smith: Unfortunately, we already have plenty of evidence of the profoundly negative impact of French policy on Muslim women in the government’s attempts to forcibly “liberate” them. The images of Muslim women being detained by police on beaches during the ludicrous burkini ban last summer demonstrated the degree of humiliation Muslim women suffer when they “break” these laws. Although laws such as banning headscarves in schools are often couched in language about France’s commitment to the separation of religion from public spheres, their selective enforcement exposes their true purpose: criminalizing Muslims. While the 2004 headscarf ban, for example, officially banned all "signs and dress that ostensibly denote the religious belonging of students," only Muslim students have been targeted for punishment.
The violent consequences of government policies are evident throughout French society. Instead of emphasizing the fact that the vast majority of Muslims have been horrified at (and also frequently the victims of) recent terrorist attacks in France, the French government has whipped up a racist hysteria against them. The French government itself reported that the number of violent attacks on Muslim people tripled in 2015—and the government statistics grossly underestimate the number of attacks because they rely only on crimes reported to the police. Muslim victims of such violence are surely reluctant to report them to the police, since the State of Emergency has resulted in widespread raids on the homes of Muslim families.
The Collective Against Islamophobiain France (CCIF) conducted a survey in 2014 that showed “only 20% of the victims of Islamophobia actually report those acts. It also indicates that Muslims, (50% of the respondents) identify political and media speeches amongst the first causes of Islamophobia.”The report, issued in 2016, also showed that over 75 percent of the victims of Islamophobia are women. As the CCIF describes, “Overhyped and over-politicized, the headscarf issue has direct consequences on how the French public opinion views Muslims… Depicted as oppressed, infantilized, women wearing the headscarf are subject to injunctions to standardize their body, to match a model of emancipation that are both ethnocentric and excluding.”
MP: How do you think the upcoming presidential election in France would be shaped towards this issues?
Sharon Smith: The upcoming election is already a competition among racists, sexists and Islamophobes trying to outdo one another. There is no other way to explain their impassioned opposition to the burkini last summer. How can anyone get so worked up about a piece of swimwear that by all appearances seems perfectly harmless (and quite comfortable)?
We have already discussed Hollande’s anti-Islam comments above. But all of these politicians used the burkini ban to issue a war cry against Muslims—from National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who argued that "the soul of France" was at stake in banning the burkini to Donald Trump wannabe Nicolas Sarkozy, who pledged, "I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools...there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic's territory.”
Just as Trump has inflated the confidence of xenophobes, sexists and white supremacists in the U.S., French politicians have helped ease the way for the far-right National Front in France. In France, however, the consequences could be felt sooner rather than later. On September 24, France 24 reported polls showing that Marine Le Pen, whose calling card is xenophobia, is likely to advance to the second round of presidential voting in the spring of 2017. Polls estimate that she will win twice the number of votes as her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, won in 2002.
This is the chilling reality of the 2017 French presidential elections. It is not an abstraction: as CCIF reported, “more than half of police and military forces (51.5%) voted, in the regional elections of 2015, for the National Front, an explicitly Islamophobic party.”As just 9 percent of the population, French Muslims cannot win this fight on their own, and the time is ripe for all those who oppose Islamophobia in France—and around the world—to forge a unified struggle.
Sharon Smith is an American socialist writer and activist. She is the author of 'Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States' and 'Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation'.