Being Forced To Undress Is Not Exactly The Liberation I Have Longed For

I’ve been putting off writing this post. I was hoping I wouldn’t need to, hoping I wouldn’t bother. Hoping that I’d see outrage fill people’s timelines and all the usual feminist social media spaces so I wouldn’t feel forced to write something, anything, explaining my outrage.

But here I am. Here I am writing about feminism and Muslim women again and namely responding to the deafening, choking, claustrophobic silence from White Feminists™.

What we are seeing in France is part of the continued criminalisation of being Muslim. Particularly the criminalisation of visibly Muslim people – particularly Muslim women. What we are seeing is a vulgar display of White Feminism™ codified and legislated by the state. We’re seeing women being forced to conform to something held up as ‘liberty’ with no irony at all. Women are coerced with the threat of force –  to take off their burkinis at the beach. A Muslim woman was ordered off the beach in Cannes and fined for simply wearing her headscarf. We know already, of course, that the French implemented the ‘burqa ban’, we know that headscarves ‘and other religious symbols’ are banned in state schools and there have been multiple incidents of school-girls being forbidden from wearing ‘long skirts’ to school – not when they’re worn as a fashion statement, but when they’re worn by Muslim girls because then it suddenly becomes a ‘religious symbol’.

Cannes, in France, have banned the burkini because, it ‘could risk disrupting public order while France was the target of terrorist attacks’ and because burkinis are ‘not respectful of [the] good morals and secularism’ of France.

We’re going to need some space to unpack this one, bear with me.

So first of all, correct me if I’m wrong but I thought this was a pretty black and white thing we feminists were agreed on. An article of faith if you will: Thou Shalt Leave Women To Do As They Will With Their Own Bodies. France, often posturing itself as the beacon of feminism because apparently feminism was born of the French Revolution (don’t know if all the working-class women and women in the colonies heard about that liberation, sorry guys!) should surely know this article more than most. And yet, here they are – the French state itself – forcing women to wear or not wear certain clothes! Incredible!

Recently I saw a spate of articles about the hijab in Iran. In Iran women are forced to wear the hijab by law and can be publically admonished, fined or even arrested for ‘inadequate’ covering. Now, I’m sure many more feminists – and I’m guessing particularly those in Europe – would be quick to agree this is Not Okay. Surely the best thing is for women to be free to choose to dress however they want – be it wearing a headscarf or a miniskirt. Yet, it seems that oppression is only when brown men tell you how to dress; when white men do it it’s called liberation.

Now, if you’re about to comment saying, ‘dear me TBH I’m afraid its just not that simple’, you’re bang-on-the-money absolutely spot on correct it’s not. And that brings me to my second point.

My local Sports Direct encouraging extremism. [photo of burkinis hanging for sale.]
The bans in France are specifically targeted at Muslim women. The fact that the burkini could be linked to terrorism somehow and therefore a ban on it justified seems ludicrous, and yet this is the stage we’ve reached. The extreme policing of Muslim women’s dress is somehow an acceptable ‘anti-extremism’ measure. More than that, Muslim women are posited always as victims of their dress who require liberation from the French authorities. And here’s the catch, this French desire to liberate Muslim women and the positing of Muslimness as ‘oppositional’ to Frenchness has a long and bloody history.

Oh yes, here I go again.

French colonies in North Africa were the ones with large Muslim populations, but also the ones with some of the longest and bloodiest battles for independence – see Algeria. That sort of history and that sort of war is not a good start for making you the experts on legislating on Muslim dress. In fact, you might argue that it gives you a slightly biased picture of history and one that’s full of images of you battling your unruly Muslim subjects who for years you have depicted as the very opposite ‘sorts of people’ as you are and therefore as savage, animalistic, backwards, ignorant, male despots and female victims. So, when, from the 1960s and 70s and 80s those same colonies, now independent, saw people begin to migrate to France – because oh, I don’t know maybe there’d been a long history of war and repression which kind of made opportunities not so great over there – this long background of antagonism and racism can’t have disappeared.

And here’s another thing. That French feminism we were just talking about – that is also born of that history. That type of feminism is one steeped in imperialism and hardcore racism. Muslim women are not women in that feminism. Muslim women’s bodies are different, they are racialised, they are dehumanised and, as ever, they remain the central posturing points in ideological battles between an imaginary ‘East’ and West’ conjured up by the latter to deal with its self-destructive modernity wherein colonialism’s long-term consequences – namely immigration and war – are hard to deal with and need a scapegoat. Because, let’s be honest, when we ask ‘I wonder what it is that drives Muslims in the West to be extremists?’ its easier to blame IS than it is to consider the deeply engrained segregatory and racist policies and rhetoric we practice in our own backyards.

And that brings me to my final point. If you’re thinking, ‘ah, but TBH you’ve missed the central part of the question here, France is not being racist or Islamaphobic or informed by its long history of colonialism, its just pursuing good ole secularism!’ – stop right there. French secularism is not half that. A secular state is usually one which believes in separation of state and religion, of public and religious affairs. But in France, secularism, laïcité, means something more. It is itself a form of ideology and is often linked to the French revolution and therefore also a bastion of French identity. But what it has grown to mean in recent years is not something which nineteenth-century French statesmen would recognise. ‘Freedom of conscience’ and ‘free exercise of religious faiths’ have lost ground to a political passion which makes secularism the defining French value. As such, it has been weaponised in xenophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric turning ‘secularism’ specifically and deliberately against French Muslims and often, though Muslims are also confusingly, often condemned on grounds of not accepting France’s ‘Christian’ culture.

So, we have to ask, how does what Muslim women wear on their heads and bodies challenge secularism which requires only a separation of power? The answer is, it doesn’t.

What’s happening in France is not even thinly-veiled (haha) racism. It is out and out ‘what are you gonna do about it?’ racism. If you’re reading this, ask yourself what you’re going to do about it. If you count yourself as a feminist, ask yourself, ‘where the heck have I been and why have I not cared about the policing and criminalisation of Muslim women’s bodies the same way as I care about the policing and criminalisation of white women’s bodies?’  If you’re worried about the world and war and extremism ask yourself, ‘am I just sitting by and letting my society be segregated by the powers that be?’ If you really want Muslim women to not be oppressed, ask yourself what you’re doing about the Islamaphobia slowly becoming legitimate ideology in the West, because that Islamaphobia disproportionately hurts visibly Muslim women.

Republished on The Independent 24 Aug 2016.

41 thoughts on “Being Forced To Undress Is Not Exactly The Liberation I Have Longed For

    1. Heartbreaking if you are a Muslim women you can’t win. Stuck between to patriarchal societies trying to control your body.


  1. Reblogged this on Third Eye Avaaz and commented:
    The Brown Hijabi could not have put it any better. ‘Burkinis are “not respectful of [the] good morals and secularism” of France’: France is supposed to embody freedom and equality. What’s free and equal about forcing a woman, minding her own business, to strip lest she be sprayed/tasered/shot?


  2. This is not White Feminism. This is not a case of ‘feminism that isn’t good enough.’ This is simple, outright Misogyny with a capital M.


    1. I find something strange about that video. The woman seats directly on the stones, while everybody else has at least a towel; and, when the police interfers, she takes off her clothes immediately. A truly religious woman would have left. This whole story looks like a provocation.


      1. She is being forced to take off. She left immediately after paying the FINE for wearing it. The french police threatened with a gun which is why she took her clothes off and she can’t leave without paying the fine


        1. I watched the video. They did not threaten her with a gun. I think it was rather a scam to manipulate the media against this regulation.


  3. Well I was recently in Paris and the burka plus many veiling there faces was widespread I felt uncomfortable I will never go to Paris again Muslim extremists have taken over .its medieval , they should all go to a strict Arab country ? There dressing to antagonise white people, they are not working dressed like that so as there living off the state they should do what the government of France wants


  4. Excellent piece. In addition to the points you raise, I am concerned that French authorities seem to be pretending concern for Muslim women becoming the focus of hate crimes when they wear identifying clothing. This is a smokescreen for expression of their own prejudice


  5. I’ve always said #FEMINISM ONLY applies to #WHITE #women
    Because when something bad happens we go back to being the #other.
    Feminism doesn’t apply to the rest of us and never will.
    And that’s ok already, let agree that feminism is white and let’s go back to calling each other women. Period. Easy.


  6. Your article is bullshit. Nobody is being criminalised- the ban, which will probably be repealed in a few months- is tantamount to a parking ticket. It doesn’t equate to a criminal charge. Get your facts straight.


    1. France evidently passed the law banning things like the hijab (as “conspicuous religious symbols”) in public schools in 2004. A ban of anything that covers the face and/or a full body suit (which yes, includes things like what you’d wear if dressing up like a Power Ranger) has been in place since 2010. Been a whole lot longer than a few months, at this point.

      That the fine may be relatively small does not matter; the point is that France has still made it illegal to wear these things without legal consequence. And also of note that if my research is correct, hijab and the like can only be banned in public schools, not while someone is sitting on the beach, which means forcing women to take them off by force or issuing them a fine at all is against French law. And yet, it’s being done.


  7. Dear TBH,

    Thanks for the piece. Well said on the white men/brown men distinction. I agreed with all of it except the part referring to the deafening silence from white feminists which could be more nuanced – many white feminists do certainly support this but not all. Some white feminists are definitely speaking out against the burka ban – several of my colleagues at Amnesty International are doing so. Have a look at the @AmnestyUK twitterfeed for today. My understanding is that there is a split between feminists globally on this issue. We do need to be careful to avoid broad brush characterisations feminism of the sort often made about Muslims.


  8. Any law that dictates what a woman can or can’t wear is outrages. Being forced to remove clothes is just unacceptable, it’s a sad day when the state has that kind of control.


  9. Please keep speaking out. This ban is racist and sexist – it’s white patriarchy claiming to undo patriarchy – utter bollocks. It’s outrageous that I as a white women can cover my skin and head to prevent myself burning, but Muslim women can’t wear what they want because the men in charge have arbitrarily decided certain styles of dress symbolise terrorism?! Angry and outraged by the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. it is not about hate. it is about principles.
    The law in France is that there should be display of religious belief.
    the law is there to be reinforced.
    How come the going to the beach with whatever costume is ok? why now? Up to 2-5 years ago it did not even exist. Now what needs to be said is those are vicious confrontational acts. Nothing more. I have lived in Saudi for 4 years and they do not even do it…! so if you want to live with your faith… there are countless muslim countries around. so live your faith were you can.
    Gay people are persecuted in Russia. Nobody cares. Gay people fled. Who cared.
    Woman are killed in the streets of the Middle east just because. Nobody cares. Men craves power over women like neanderthals did. But in a modern civilisation, I’m afraid religion has no place. Religion is your and yours only to chose, to live, and believe. I don’t have to know what religion you are. What you do stay at home.
    French law says no to religious display. Stick to it or be fine or be humiliated. It is better than being stoned in the streets of saudi, just because…

    What kills me is those “whites” who juts need to defends others when they don’t have all the informations at hand. Don’t know what they are talking about. And defend people that don’t defending. and Just to argue and show they care, just because…

    Oh, and needs to be said… France is not a muslim country. It is a laic country and it has been since we chopped up the king’s head!!!


  11. I think that France has a major natioal security issue and this law comes just to take people’s minds off the actual problem. They took this “action against terrorism” to show the nation they are doing something. Instead they are just becoming more and more similar to Iran by giving laws that tell people what to wear.
    Unfortunately for them, by giving this law, they look like child who faild a test and is overwhelmed by the situation.


  12. No one has the moral authority to tell another adult human being how to dress (or not dress). At least not beyond the basic cover your genitalia (aka “no one wants to see your junk”) level


  13. Dear Muslims:


    North African, Middle Eastern, European = WHITE

    I feel that my rights to express this are being encroached upon.


    Lane Khan


  14. I can’t wait to hear how outraged you’ll be once you hear what non-Muslims have to conform to Muslim countries!


    1. Ok so for you, if the muslim countries restrain freedoms, so should we do ? Well… Don’t worry, France will soon be as liberticide as these countries. If that can make you happy.


  15. It’s interesting that you choose to dismiss the rich legacy/cultural heritage of French secularism in a brief paragraph. And ”Freedom of conscience’ and ‘free exercise of religious faiths’ have lost ground to a political passion which makes secularism the defining French value.” If a country wants to make secularism its defining value, it has absolute freedom to do so. For French people, secularism has come to mean not wearing religious symbols in public places. Along with burkinis, people wearing crosses have been prosecuted as well over the decades. There are reasons for this. There are reasons for France’s fervent secularism, rooted in the country’s history. Just like various aspects of Islam that devout Muslims are passionate about, every country usually has a defining ethos that it is passionate about. You cannot dismiss a country’s identity to argue that every defense of it is ‘racist’.


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