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Posts Tagged ‘burka

BBC 5 Live: Should Britain ban the veil?

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I discuss a private member’s bill outlawing burkas, niqabs and other face coverings which is on the list of motions to be discussed in Parliament today – Should Britain ban the veil?

With Nicky Campbell, Angela Epstein, Mohamed Ansar and MP proposing the bill, Philip Hollobone.

Listen to the discussion here


Written by Myriam Francois

September 7, 2013 at 00:00

The Independent: “Lady Gaga’s burqa is good for Muslim women”

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Is Gaga’s recent choice to wear various “Islamic” items of clothing, a shameless exploitation of orientalist fetishes to promote herself as a pseudo-edgy ‘artiste’? Indeed it is. And yet, I find myself strangely satisfied at the uproar caused by her neon pink burqa, because it challenges the discursive monopoly on the meaning of Muslim women’s clothing. Muslim women’s clothing, apparently, can be oppressive or it can be nothing at all.

In 2009, Lady Gaga held a press conference to which she turned up wearing a bizarre full face covering. Unfazed by her typically outrageous fashion choices, the journalists proceeded to quiz her on her music, none storming out in protest that it was “impossible to read her facial features” or concerned about the “true identity” of who sat before them – no, not one even complained that it was “hampering communication”. Why? Because she’s Lady Gaga and not a Muslim woman.

Because so much of the public narrative – from justifications for war to bans on Muslim women’s attire, depends on the perception of veils as inherently misogynistic, any suggestion they could be empowering is met not merely with consternation, but faux indignation at the poor brown women presumably insulted by this. Of course, Gaga chooses to wear a ‘burqa’ (is a transparent burqa still a burqa?) when women in Afghanistan and elsewhere don’t always have the luxury of choice – but they also don’t have the luxury of themselves defining the significance ascribed to articles of Muslim dress.

The accusations of white privilege levelled at Gaga do hold some sway – after all, it is absolutely and unequivocally because she is white/wealthy/famous that she goes unchallenged in her choice to cover her head, hair or body. But the inherent double standard in the treatment of white/powerful women who cover their faces versus the treatment of poor/disenfranchised/ brown women who do, is far more interesting to me than the problematic regurgitation of orientalist clichés which frankly, I’m virtually inured to.

Now I could be wrong here, but I don’t recall a huge debate about whether her choice to wear a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards was her take on a post-modern critique of the meat industry – perhaps I just happened to miss that, but it is telling that it’s Muslim women’s clothing (I use “Muslim” in the broadest sense) which seems, yet again, to be causing such a stir. And that’s because the discourse on Muslim women’s clothing, and its invariably oppressive significance, is so narrowly policed, so rigidly defined, that any deviation from that script inevitably leads to accusations of sympathising with misogynistic loons who employ some of the items in question as part of their anti-women arsenal.

Now it’s unfortunate for Muslim women who choose to wear some sort of veil that there are sadly a number of oppressive countries who like to dictate to women what they consider to be Islamic clothing and that the easy assumption often follows that wearing one implies support/sympathy/approbation of the latter. It does not.

The contention levelled at Gaga on this occasion is that by wearing an overtly glamorous face veil, or a neon pink transparent burka or using lyrics which appear to ‘glamorise’ (God forbid!) aspects of some Muslim women’s clothing, she is unwittingly supporting the patriarchy and insulting those women who are forced to wear the garb in question.

I’m not only not offended by her choice, I’m also somewhat perturbed by the criticism she’s received over it – no one has a monopoly on the significance of symbols. There is no a priori meaning hidden behind the face veil – even different Muslim cultures offer different views and meanings to it. To some women, it is the pinnacle of piety, to others, a modern accretion, for others still, a neo-feminist choice. So if Lady Gaga wants to don a face veil and, in so doing, add yet another, American pop culture layer of significance to it, I say bring it!

I relish the fact her act subverts the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination. Perhaps now there’ll be a little more room for different Muslim women to contribute their understanding of these symbols and in so doing, move from object, to subject in that discussion.

In the Atlantic, Allie Jones argues that Gaga donning the burqa represents a “sexualisation of Muslim women”, fetishizing “the women of another culture in order to sell records”. In her latest tune ‘Burqa’ she raps “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?” Although this clearly does play into orientalist depictions, it has one significant difference and that’s the idea of active, versus the typically passive sexuality associated with Muslim women. It’s also true that Lady Gaga sexualises everything – even lobsters. So Muslim women can at least rest easy that we are not the sole targets of her sexualising crusade.

Gaga is appropriating Islamic symbols and in so doing, associating her confident sexual identity and power with women typically assumed to be passive and voiceless victims. Partly, this is why people are so shocked. How dare a burqa-clad woman also be a confident sexual being? How outrageous that the niqab be linked to one of the biggest American cultural icons of the 21st century.

Let’s be honest – Gaga isn’t changing the game for Muslim women – she’s far more concerned with selling records than with taking a political stance – but rather than be offended by her latest outlandishness I find myself smiling at the thought of her being stopped by French officials while shopping in Galeries Lafayette or harangued at JFK airport as she returns to the US. Of course she probably won’t be. But the exceptionalism she’s afforded reveals a double standard far more concerning than the absurdity of a transparent burka.

Read the original piece here

Written by Myriam Francois

August 11, 2013 at 18:02

AJEnglish: “France: police brutality, not burkas, the source of tensions”

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Until recently, the Parisian suburb of Trappes was famous for producing some of France’s brightest stars, including footballer Nicolas Anelka and comedian Jamel Debbouze. But this weekend, it gained notoriety as the site of the latest burka ban controversy.

At the heart of the recent protests is a concern over systemic and institutionalised racism in France’s establishment and the unwillingness on the part of politicians and sections of the media, to confront it.

The disturbances began following the ID check of a woman wearing the face veil. What ensued remains unclear, with dramatically diverging testimonials from police and eyewitnesses.

The police claim face-veil clad Hajjar, who was accompanied by her mother, husband and four month old baby resisted the check and that her husband reacted violently, assaulting an officer. Official sources present the resultant protests as opposition to the enforcement of the 2011 ban on face veils by ‘Islamic militant elements’.

For her part, Hajjar claims she and her husband, 21 year old Michael, were the victims of excessive force used by bigoted police officers. Eyewitnesses confirm Hajjar’s testimonial that she was violently dragged by her hair and pinned against a police car. Her husband intervened and was handcuffed.

Both Hajjar and eyewitnesses deny police claims that the couple were violent towards police officers. According to Samba, a representative for the Association of residents of Trappes, a North African woman who attempted to intervene was told to “sod off, you dirty Arab”, by officers present.

A 2009 Amnesty International report highlighted how allegations of unlawful killings, beatings, racial abuse and excessive use of force by France’s police officers are rarely investigated effectively. Despite accusations of gross human rights violations, often against ethnic minorities, officers are seldom brought to justice.

Just last year, 30 year old Wissam El Yamni fell into a coma and died in police custody following a forceful arrest. It has been a year, and no police officer has been put on trial or has even faced a judge. No explanations have yet been offered on why Wissam’s body showed bruises, red marks around his neck as well as fractures.

Also last year, residents of Aulnay sous-Bois accused the police of complicity in the death of 25 year old Christian Lambert during a stop and search. Although official reports claim he died of a heart attack, friends point to the excessive use of force by officers on the day which they felt was partly to blame.

Allegations of police brutality are not uncommon in France’s poorest neighbourhoods where the police are often viewed as a violent instrument of state repression, subduing the poorest and most marginalised, with little accountability. Just days before this most recent incident, residents of Aulnay-sous-bois complained of the police’s heavy handed tactics during Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th, in which municipal employees claim to have been beaten by officers.

These incidents are indicative of the tense relationship between residents of certain neighbourhoods and some of the officers charged with policing the areas. Just days after the disturbances in Trappes, French Muslim website al-Kanz posted screenshots from an unofficial police Facebook forum, “Forum Police-Info”, in which officers expressed racism and violent intent including a call to “empty your munitions in Trappes” and “watch out for cameras and take no prisoners” as well as support for the Far Right.

“Spent the night in Trappes, poor France, long live bleu Marine”, one post read, in reference to national front leader Marine Le Pen. The page has since been taken down, as has the profile of one of the officers who appeared to have been present in Trappes, but the feeling that officers are often racist and bigoted prevails.

Politicians and sections of the French media have framed the incident as reflecting tensions over the ban on face veils, however Hajjar states she has previously been stopped because of her face veil and no trouble resulted.

Although the ban on face veils is perceived in some circles are another opportunity to stigmatise Muslims, recent events reflect far deeper anxieties over police brutality, an unwillingness among government officials to hear sections of the French citizenry and double standards in the treatment of ethnic minorities who already experience discrimination in many facets of French life, from employment to housing.

Valls’ statement confirms a widespread sentiment that French citizens who live in impoverished suburbs, be they Muslim or not, don’t matter and that violence against them occurs in all impunity.

Despite the law banning face veils having been justified on the basis of protecting public order (although there is no evidence it previously threatened it), the law has led to increased discrimination against Muslim women, including acts of violence by vigilantes.

With worrying acts of Islamophobia increasingly common in France, including at a legislative level where UMP MPs are now seeking to extend the ban of the headscarf from the public sector to the private sector, many French Muslims feel the authorities are deaf to their concerns.

Hajjar’s offence was no more serious than a minor traffic infraction – but the treatment which she, and others, allege followed is far more serious. In dismissing accounts of police brutality, the authorities are confirming the widely held perception of a system in which residents of poorer suburbs, minorities and Muslims in particular are less worthy of public protection and fair game for stigmatisation and violence. France has yet to have an equivalent to the Stephen Lawrence case, a watershed moment in which the entire police force is made to confront its racist elements.

In response to the events in Trappes, Valls insisted there is “only one law in this country”, a law burka-clad women could not be absolved from obeying. It is time for an independent inquiry which can help heal the chasm in French society by vindicating victims of police abuse and reassuring the residents of Trappes and elsewhere that indeed, there is only one law and that no one stands above it. Not even the police.

Original article here

BBC radio 4 “Today program”: disturbances in the French suburbs – burkas or police brutality?

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I discuss recent disturbances in the French suburb of Trappes and their possible relationship to police brutality (according to eye witness accouts), not opposition to the burka ban, with UMP MP Herve Mariton

You can listen to the interview here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 23, 2013 at 21:46

Lecture: Islam and feminism – common ground?

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This is a lecture I delivered at the university of Southampton, a join Islamic society and Feminist society event in January 2012.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 20, 2012 at 13:55

Islam and Life program: Why is France trying to remove Islam from the public sphere?

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Street prayers have been a source of debate in secular France. Last month, a ban on street prayers came into effect in the capital Paris. A discussion with Tariq Ramadan.

Why is France trying to remove Islam from the public sphere?

Can also be viewed here:

Written by Myriam Francois

November 28, 2011 at 12:52

Freedom from France’s Marianne

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The recent statement that France’s ruling party hopes to ban headscarves from all work places and schools, including when worn by the mothers of pupils (scarves being already banned since 2004) is just the latest attempt to unite France’s divided electorate in the face of a tired political class, lacking in imaginative ideas to address France’s very real problems. The announcement that former President Jacques Chirac is actually backing the Socialist candidate in France’s upcoming elections, rather than Sarkozy whom he technically shares a political affinity with, corroborates the fact France’s political scene is a very muddled place, where Muslim bashing, which plays to Far-Right tendencies, has replaced substantive political discussion. But what the focus on burkas and scarves and the length of some women’s dresses, also highlights is a continuing struggle by a minority of French women to broaden the nation’s distinctly narrow notion of femininity and feminine worth.

Each nation’s relationship to the “burka debate” seems to reflect to some degree a country specific take on gender roles and notions of femininity. In France, where it is taken as a given that a man has the “right” to view a woman’s body, where the naked female form routinely serves to advertise everything from yoghurt to perfume, and where not going topless on the beach is considered prudish, the idea that a woman might actually want to shield her body from such a gaze represents an affront to the “right” which has for so long been that of the country’s men – to see women, all of a woman. Naturally…(!)

People who usually like to proclaim that French women are just “naturally so slim” omit to note the reality of strong social pressure to conform to rigid, popular (and notably slim) notions of female worth – as represented by the country’s “icons” – be they actresses, (turned rabid far-right activists), like Brigitte Bardot, who at the height of her fame was known far more for her sex-appeal than her acting talent (the weight of her physique having been sufficient to carry her through the production of an album, despite her notable lack of singing ability…), politicians, like Rachida Dati, more famed for her alleged affairs with high profile figures and risqué outfits, than any single policy she might have helped devise, or news anchors, such as Mélissa Theuriau, known more for her looks than her journalistic abilities. In any society, ‘visible’ women, in other words those given a public platform – are manifestations of the cultural understanding of femininity and of female success. And there is no missing the overarching theme here.

The predominant message is that your looks are the primary vehicle for your success and may, in many cases, override any significant absence of talent. In a recent article in which she praised France’s attitude to older actresses compared to the UK and the USA, Kristen Scott-Thomas also discussed the fact she was asked to bare all in her latest film (something she seemed *really* enthused about “Obviously I haven’t done scenes like that for a very, very, very long time and I don’t think I’ll be doing them again anytime soon!”), suggesting the French have an appreciation of beauty which extends beyond 25. Or, another way to look at it, would be to say that women must continue to espouse an overtly sexual self-image, in order to have continued appeal past 25…

The implications of a cultural conception of femininity which places so much emphasis on sex appeal is that women who choose not to define themselves in accordance with that framework are derided, denigrated, and when they are already politically disenfranchised, socially and politically excluded. Indeed, Rachida Dati, who famously got the words “fellatio” and “inflation” mixed up in a radio interview, was the first female politician of North African origin to hold a top French government post. And mixing sex into the political equation may not have been the faux-pas many assumed it might be. After all, it hasn’t dented her public profile (dare I say it enhanced it…).

Since the demotion of the woman Sarkozy once heralded as France’s symbol of change, to the European court, female French politicians of North African descent are conspicuously absent. What this symbolically and possibly quite figuratively translates as, is wealthy, white men in power dictating to poorer, disenfranchised, non-white women, what the very definition of civility is ( a colonial ring there anyone!?). In the matter of what constitutes a ‘civilised’ woman, that equates to dictating to them when, and how much of their bodies, they should be making public. Was it really a surprise to anyone that the maid at the center of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn controversy has been identified as a Guinean immigrant, in other words an ‘uncivilised’ woman to whom sexual civility ought to be dictated – nay, imposed… (thankfully, what passes in France doesn’t always pass in America!). And supreme irony of ironies, the DSK case came to light the same week that a French court decided to deny a French woman’s husband citizenship on the basis of his “degrading attitude” towards women…

Civility when it comes to women’s issues, equates to dictating the acceptable boundaries of femininity and in this case, criminalising those who don’t wish to live up to the modern Marianne – who incidentally, the Association of French Mayors (AMF) named Brigitte Bardot as the first symbolic representation of – the current Marianne being the model Laeticia Casta…

The reality of the increasingly stringent laws being passed to prevent Muslim women from adhering to their religious convictions, is pervasive discrimination. Kenza Drider who has become the mouth piece for women who wear the face veil in France, states that prior to the President’s decision to take a public stance against the “burka”, she hadn’t experienced any discrimination because of it. In March this year, a school in the Paris suburbs threatened Muslim girls (and ONLY Muslim girls) with exclusion, for the shocking misdemeanour of wearing “long dresses”.

In many ways, these women are the reluctant pioneers of a feminist struggle to expand notions of femininity and move beyond the straight jacket of a Chanel attired, sexually alluring model or actress (or a politician that must look like one). And yet, in their struggle to define their own notion of femininity and escape the dominant one, they have received very little support from other women, or feminist organisations, whose uneasy relationship with what many view as a symbol of patriarchy, impedes their ability to listen to the women’s voices.

Kenza, who wears the veil for “spiritual reasons”, states: “This law incites people to violence against women who have made the choice to wear this garment.” Kenza claims she is insulted and subjected daily to tirades from fellow citizens who regard the public discourse and law, as a legitimation of their prejudice. “I won’t stay at home or take off the veil” she says, echoing what are in effect the two choices being afforded to a woman who wishes to remain true to her convictions. Speculating on what will happen when she does in effect, refuse to sit at the back of the bus, she responds: “I’ll be happy to take the fine in order to launch an appeal at the European court. This law is discriminatory, unconstitutional and turns people away from our real problems – how can you turn to a small group of French women and say, this is France’s problem.”

Despite the popularity of seminal books like the Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf) and Female Chauvinist Pigs (Ariel Levy) in feminist circles, the question remains of just how many feminists will stand with Kenza and her compatriots, supporting their choice to challenge dominant norms of femininity and symbolically arguing for a recognition of women on terms which premise their value not on their looks, their weight, or their fashion, but on their value as human beings.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 14, 2011 at 22:27