On March 8th, French feminists will take to the streets in celebration of International Women’s Day. Like their American counterparts in the Women’s March Movement, they will be demanding equal pay for equal work, continued access to abortion, an end to sexual violence, and the equal division of domestic labor. Unlike their American counterparts, however, they will not be marching in support of the woman likely to become their next president. While the United States is still reeling from the defeat of its first female candidate for president, France is poised to elect its first. In the wake of terrorist attacks that rocked the nation in November of 2015, Marine Le Pen, the candidate for France’s far-right National Front Party, has gone from a marginal political figure to a front-runner for France’s highest office. Though both Hillary Clinton and Marine Le Pen have threatened to shatter the glass ceiling, they have done so with two starkly different approaches to contemporary identity politics.
While Clinton ran on the notion that “women’s rights are human rights,” Le Pen’s slogan might best be summed up as “women’s rights are white European women’s rights.” Employing xenophobic rhetoric all too familiar to Americans under the Trump administration, Le Pen has become the face of contemporary French nationalism, claiming to know what “French identity” really means and using it as a weapon against France’s so-called enemies. These “enemies” tend to share a common trait: they are non-white, and they are Muslim. According to a speech Le Pen gave on February 5 2017, “Fundamentalist Islam” has attempted to “impose on us, pell-mell: sex-segregated public spaces; the full veil or headscarf; prayer rooms in businesses,” as well as, “the submission of women, who are forbidden to wear skirts, work, or go to restaurants. No French citizen, no Republican, no woman attached to her dignity and liberty can accept this situation.”
It would be easy to write off Le Pen’s rhetoric as classic far-right scapegoating if it weren’t for the fact that the majority of contemporary French feminists, left and right, agree with her about the dangers of the veil. Islam, in the eyes of both Le Pen and anti-veil feminists, is a threat to women’s rights, and thus, Muslim women are a threat to long-standing French Republican ideals. In this narrative, the veil is not just a piece of fabric, it is a symbol of everything that modern democratic liberalism has fought to destroy. Religion, communalism, submission to divine authority: these must be discouraged at all costs.
At the center of this polemic, as Joan Scott has noted in her book The Politics of the Veil (2010) is France’s continuing debate over Muslim women’s right to wear the veil (a word used to connote both headscarves and full veils). After several failed attempts to draft a bill that would forbid girls in public schools from wearing the veil, the National Assembly finally voted the bill into law in March of 2004. Referred to as the “law on religious symbols in French public schools,” the ban included other “conspicuous” expressions of religious identity, such as kippas (Jewish skull caps) and “large” crucifixes. However, both the writers of the law and its enforcers were aware that its primary target was Muslim girls.
In the decade following the ratification of the law, the French feminist movement has literally split in two over the headscarf controversy. In 2004, the International Women’s Day demonstration became a battle over this issue. Partisans of the law even went so far as to suggest that veiled women should not be allowed to join the march, effectively excluding Muslim women from the feminist movement in the name of their own liberation. The divisions between supporters and opponents of the law came to a climax in 2012, when the Collectif 8 mars pour TouTEs (March 8th for All) decided to organize an alternative march in Paris’s popular neighborhoods, inhabited largely by people of North African descent. Led by queer women and sex workers (a highly politicized constituency) the march had two stated goals: to support Muslim women’s right to wear the headscarf, and to call for an end to the criminalization of prostitution.
Though these two demands may at first seem contradictory, they are based on the same common principle: that women should have sovereignty over their own bodies, whether they choose to cover them up, or to lay them bare. This may seem like an obvious pillar of contemporary Western feminism. After all, both American and French feminists have long fought for reproductive justice in the name of “choice.” However, the veil baffles French feminists precisely because it challenges the idea that there is one correct path for women’s liberation. This dilemma is rooted in France’s colonial history, and stems from the logic of its “civilizing mission”: a mission predicated on the idea that the French Republic could, and should, save colonized peoples from themselves. Liberation did not come from within, but from an outside “rational” (white, male, European) liberator.
Christine Delphy, a radical feminist and outspoken opponent of the headscarf ban, has explored the paradoxical nature of this ideology in her book Classer, Dominer: Qui sont les autres? (2008). “Beneath this old refrain,” Delphy explains, “is the latent argument that oppressed people do not possess the intellectual capacity to correctly analyze their own situation. They can give testimonies — raw, even moving ones. But when the moment comes to analyze these testimonies, they must make way for the people who know how to do it best.” Muslim women, the anti-veil argument goes, are not capable of seeing their own oppression. Even if they claim to be making a rational choice to wear the veil, it can never really be rational, because they are trapped in an oppressive religious ideology. Therefore, it is the French Republic’s duty to save these women from themselves, and to help them see the light — i.e., abandon Islam, remove their veils, and adopt French secular ideas. This was the same trajectory proposed to subjects of the former French colonies, especially Algeria. The civilizing mission was rarely, if ever, a path to liberation, however. A cycle of oppression, it was and is used to exclude non-white citizens from France’s emancipatory ideals.
Claiming that Muslim women will be liberated if they throw off their veils not only denies them sovereignty over their own bodies, but also places the blame for patriarchal systems of oppression on the women caught within them. If it is true, which it is, that the veil is often used by men as an excuse for violence, then the problem is not the women wearing the veil, but the men who are violent. The problem is not Islam. The problem is patriarchy.
If the French feminist movement has any hope of repairing the divisions that have plagued it for the last decade, it must stop thinking of Muslim women as their own enemy and the enemy of French Republicanism. It must come to terms with France’s long history of racial and cultural oppression, and reflect on the ways that this oppression has been reproduced and solidified within the heart of the feminist movement. If the movement fails to listen to the voices of Muslim women, feminism may well continue to be manipulated by reactionary figures like Marine Le Pen. “Women’s equality” will continue to be used as a weapon against non-white women, and feminism will continue to be divided by the very liberation it claims to champion.