Hafsa Kara-Mustapha argues that French Muslims must make a stand against the Islamophobia and racism that is being inflicted on them on a daily basis.
The self-styled bastion of liberalism and democracy that is France has once again chosen to legislate against women’s choice of outfit.
What was once viewed as the domain of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia has now reached Western shores, via the beaches of the French Riviera.
Women in the South of France are now obliged by law to remove as much clothing as possible when on the beaches of Cannes and Corsica. Nothing screams Liberté like four men standing over a woman and forcing her to remove her clothes.
Where once Saudi’s religious police was criticised for monitoring what type of garment women in the conservative kingdom were wearing, France has now reclaimed this blatantly sexist practice, liberally sprinkling it with overt bigotry and packaging it as “laicité” (secularism).
So far no one has managed to define the word ‘laicité’ though it is a word consistently used to tell France’s six million Muslims that they’re not really French and never will be.
While the ban is said to specifically target the outfit created in 2007 and marketed as “burkini” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the burka and bikini, police officers are in fact trawling beaches looking for women from visible minorities whose skin remains covered.
The sheer absurdity of this latest French regulation, which mirrors the ban on kebabs or the forcible eating of pork meat in schools, comes at a time when France remains active in its bid to ouster Syrian president Assad in the name of “democracy.”
France has admittedly, since the Dieudonne affair, become an international laughing stock; however, with this latest violation of women’s basic human rights, it’s the apathy of its sizeable Muslim community that is now more worrisome.
This is a diverse community that boasts intellectuals and activists from all persuasions normally able to challenge the system in place. Yet for all the daily violations of French Muslim’s basic rights, not one protest has been organised. Not one sit-in in front of parliament, the presidency or even the local “Mairies” (Town Halls) where the ban was introduced.
The list of humiliations is too great to mention, yet while many French Muslims take to social media to vent, none of that energy seems to be spent on effective action that would see them force France’s political establishment to retract some of its more reactionary policies.
This year alone, a government minister casually compared Muslim women wearing the headscarf to “negros who chose to remain slaves.”
The use of the grossly offensive word to describe black people coupled with the idea that only a white woman can liberate her Muslim fellow citizens from self-imposed oppression, would be unthinkable in any democracy in 2016; yet Laurence Rossignol uttered those very words and was never even reprimanded for her vocabulary and racist stance.
Needless to say that if she’d compared Jewish women who shave their heads and wear wigs to comply with their faith as akin to concentration camp prisoners who diligently followed their Nazi captors, she would not have lasted the day in office, but insulting one sixth of France’s population had no bearing on her career.
Yet what did France’s Muslim (and black minority) do when Rossignol gave that interview? They posted their dismay for the umpteenth time on social media.
Ultimately this lack of reaction is what gives French politicians, looking to surf on the far-right’s popularity, the green light to continue. Had mass protest erupted when Rossignol made her comment, or when force-feeding Muslim children pork in school was suggested, this escalation of words and now action would have been brought to a close. Or at the very least toned down, yet this almost pathological apathy is now allowing the worst form of racism to emerge and be tolerated.
One beachgoer who witnessed the fining of the Muslim woman on the beach described scenes that wouldn’t have appeared out of place in the Nazi Germany of the 1930’s. She described other holiday makers cheering on the policemen shouting “Go home” to the woman while her young daughter was crying.
This type of treatment now exclusively meted out to Muslims is causing resentment within the community.
Unfortunately in the absence of effective political action, those more marginalised elements will find solace in violence and extremist behaviour as the only outlet against the state-sanctioned racism they constantly suffer.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to explain the apathy of the Muslim community. One reason could be social media, which has replaced direct action. This gives frustrated youths an outlet which unfortunately remains confined to the cyber sphere and ultimately affects no one and leads to no change.
Some will argue that the increasingly draconian terror laws that can be used against Muslims is forcing many to abstain from any political activity that could be interpreted by a hostile regime as terror-linked. While this argument has value, peaceful sit-ins and protests, in a country priding itself on its rebellious attitude to authority, would be a suitable option. In fact any show of force to express frustration at such oppressive measures should be considered, yet to this day, nothing has been done.
In the aftermath of the “Rossignol” scandal, I contacted numerous community leaders and activists from various organisations to ask what was planned. Most assured me that they were launching online petitions to ask for the minister’s resignation and would then act accordingly. Six months on, Rossignol remains comfortably behind her desk while the Muslim women she claims to support are forcibly stripped in public by fully-armed police officers.
The now iconic image, will no doubt stir strong emotions among many Muslims. This could have been the mother of any young French Muslim.
It should also force many to wonder why precious police time is wasted on stripping middle-aged women sitting on a beach front when the country is on high terror alert.
But France’s descent into the absurd continues apace with no voice of reason emerging to stop the ongoing folly. The few voices who have denounced the ongoing persecution of Muslims are dismissed as “liberals collaborating with the enemy” while the French born and bred Muslims are told to go to a home they’re not aware they have.
Many observers are questioning what has lead France down this route. Blaming the country’s population of North African origin, many are openly stating that the French have had enough and this is their way of dealing with an “unruly” community.
Victim-blaming is nothing new in imperialist nations accustomed to waging unnecessary wars such as the recent destruction of Libya, colonising foreign countries and imposing their diktat on those it deems “inferior.”
If France is reacting to problems from its Maghreb community, what forced it not so long ago to collaborate with Germany’s Nazi regime under the Vichy government when no North Africans lived in France?
Perhaps the debate shouldn’t be over women covering their skin on a beach or not, perhaps the debate should be on whether racism is as French as camembert and baguettes.