During the French occupation of Algeria, Frantz Fanon wrote about France’s gendered approach to maintaining its colonial grip: “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.”
This approach, it seems, is far from a thing of the past for the French state and society.
Indeed, once again, the last week was plagued with hundreds of commentators and dozens upon dozens of televised as well as radio debates and headlines on Muslim women and their right (or rather otherwise, as the case might be) to wear the hijab.
This avalanche of endless attacks, as has become so customary in the French context, unified a wide political spectrum, from the far left to the far right. Targeting one of the most oppressed groups in the country, it followed an incident on a school trip when a hijab-wearing mother dared to accompany her son to the regional parliament in Dijon.
Known as “Fatima”, she found herself being verbally abused by politician Julien Odoul from the fascist National Rally party (formerly known as the National Front), who demanded that she removed her headscarf or not be allowed in the building.
Odoul’s tirade was tepidly resisted by the chair of the assembly, while other members awkwardly shifted around on their seats and made unconvincing demands for the NR representative to stop. In effect, the mother was left to face the assault alone, while trying to console her distressed child.
Neither was Odoul’s attack an aberration. It rests on the existing legislation that has aimed to bar Muslim women from public life in France by, for example, making it illegal in 2004 to access school and other public services – as an employee or a service user – while wearing a hijab.
France was, shamefully, also the first country in Europe to enforce the niqab/face-veil ban back in 2011.
Simultaneously, last week also marked the anniversary of the Paris Massacres which took place on the 17 October 1961 during the Algeria war. Hundreds of Algerians who had been protesting for Algeria’s independence were murdered and their bodies were thrown in the Seine river by French police – under the command of Maurice Papon who had previously participated in the deportation of hundreds of Jews during WWII.
It took until the late 1990s for the events and death of even a small fraction of those killed to be recognised by the French state, and until 2001 for a commemorative plaque to be placed at the scene of the crime.
The fact that both events took place at the same time is telling. The resistance by the French state to commemorate and recognise its colonial violence and abuse directed against Algerians, both at home and abroad, plays an important role in masking the violence directed against Muslims in France today. Six days after Fatima’s verbal assault at the regional assembly, the French paper Liberation noted that there had already been 85 televised debates on the hijab across French news channels, an unbelievable 286 invited guests to speak on the topic, and not a single one was a women wearing a veil.
Now, just as has been the case for the last two decades, these attacks, these exclusionary laws, the violence of the state, is repeatedly defended as an act of liberation of oppressed Muslim women, saving them from their barbarian husbands and fathers.
Much like the US promised to liberate Afghan women by bombing them, and colonialism promises to liberate its subjects by exploiting them to death, the French intelligentsia promises to liberate Muslim women by excluding them from public life, public debate, and employment.
One wonders if the French state has learned anything. Perhaps refusing to recognise its past makes it equally blind to learning the lessons from it. If French control of Algerian society was premised on controlling its women, it mainly succeeded in bringing Algerian women into the forefront of resistance against its rule.