By Natalie Hunter.
On 11 April 2011, it became illegal in France for Muslim women to wear face-covering veils, as part of a broader law instating a ban on face-covering headgear; this decision has been faced with much controversy and backlash over the past four years, and has been rehashed on both sides of the debate concerning French perspectives on Islam. Adding to the tensions caused by the law, which was supported by thinkpieces that sought to define the feminist side of it, is the ongoing outcry regarding the ways in which Western mainstream feminists consider and discuss Muslim women. This thinkpiece, published by Noor Al-Sibai in early 2015, denotes the ways in which it considers mainstream feminism to be ‘failing’ Muslim women; this includes ignoring the impacts of colonialism, ignoring the history of Muslim feminism, reproducing stereotypical images of the submissive Muslim woman, and ignoring Muslim women’s actual wants and needs. The article notes that, despite calls for intersectional feminism that takes into account the experiences and priorities of the women for whom it fights, the “traditional division between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ worlds” (Al-Sibai, 2015) stubbornly persists due in no small part to lingering assumptions by Western feminists about Muslim women. Al-Sibai is right to be concerned; Western feminists misrepresenting and misinterpreting the experiences and priorities of Muslim women in their attempts to ‘save’ them is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, in France, it is nearly one hundred years old, and can be traced back to the reformulation of feminist priorities in the aftermath of WWI.
These metropolitan French feminists – overwhelmingly white, middle class women, whose priorities ran the gamut from conservative to socialist – found themselves, during the social and political fallout of WWI, reformulating not only their priorities within French society but also their very identities as feminists. Given that France was one of the few nations in the interwar years that did not grant voting rights to women – indeed, white women were not granted the right to vote until 1944 in France – French feminists were forced to continue engaging on an intellectual level with the social and political world of metropolitan France. However, women’s suffrage took centre stage for many of the French feminist organizations – and increasingly throughout the 1920s and 1930s, so did the question of women’s situation in France’s colonial territories, particularly Algeria. This question – the situation of Muslim women especially – seems to have had its flames fanned by the plethora of novels, photographs, newspaper articles, and periodicals that approached the colonial question with regards to women. Periodicals such as L’Action Féministe, for example, took up the question of colonial rights and privileges for indigenous Algerians as part of a broader argument for the Frenchwoman’s right to vote and to possess full French citizenship. The periodical mentions multiple times that “les indigènes de l’Algérie” (L’Action Féministe, 1918) had been given access to full French citizenship before Frenchwomen. What does this feminist newspaper not mention is that these indigenous Algerians were Muslim and Berber men, whose French citizenship was highly conditional and contingent upon them abandoning their own culture in order to act French – including abandoning their religious practices. These assimilationist expectations – that in order to be fully integrated into the French society within Algeria, indigenous Algerians were required to give up their own customs and faith – was repeated in the rhetoric used by French feminists and authors when discussing Muslim women. Marie Bugéja, an author and the wife of a colonial administrator in Algeria, wrote extensively about Muslim women’s uncultured and uneducated state being crucial in their victimization by the oppressive patriarchal system under which she felt they lived (Bugéja, 1921). Similarly, novelists Isabelle Eberhardt and Elissa Rhaïs characterized Muslim women as simultaneously submissive, repressed by their own culture, and exotically sensual. Marie Bugéja, influenced by Eberhardt and Rhaïs, noted with surprise and more than a little disapproval that Muslim women, far from being submissive and deferent to the men in their society, “affected an attitude of nonchalance” (Bugéja, 1921) when in public.
The perception of Muslim women as inherently uncultured and un-modern led many metropolitan French feminists to argue that the solution to the problems faced by Muslim women in Algeria was further application of the French Civil Code to the personal sphere (which included marriage, filiation, and inheritance) and the secularization of Algerian society. Indeed, historian Sara L. Kimble notes that many prominent French feminists felt that the situation of Muslim women in Algeria – which they considered to be unacceptable, not unlike their own status in France – was a direct result of a French failure to properly colonize Algeria. Inspired by and envious of the Turkish Revolution, which eventually led to women’s right to vote in the early 1930s and by the Egyptian women’s rights movement, metropolitan French feminists took up the ideas suggested by Turkish and Egyptian political activists and feminists and combined them with their own European colonialism in order to discuss Muslim women in Algeria. Al-Sibai is also not the first to point out the hypocrisy and bigotry inherent in the ways in which Western feminists approached the question of Muslim women in colonial territories. Madame Séhir Hacène, a Muslim Algerian feminist, viciously criticized French feminists for their bigotry in assuming that Islam was the foundation of Muslim women’s problems, rather than lack of education and cultural opportunities.
French perspectives on Islam and Muslim women – both within the country and outside – has a long history of colonialist and Orientalist assumptions, and that these assumptions were so heavily involved in the formation of Western European 20th century feminism can be seen even today, when Western feminists talk about the necessity of ‘saving’ Muslim women from their own culture, lives, and choices. That Western feminists have been inspired by non-Western perspectives and yet have twisted them to fit their own assumptions and agendas is unsurprising; but in order to change this, Western feminism must rid itself of its long history of colonial, Orientalist, and racist assumptions, with regards to Muslim women.
L’Action Féministe, October-December 1918. Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Gallica). Web.
Kimble, Sara L. “Emancipation through Secularization: French Feminist Views of Muslim Women’s Condition in Interwar Algeria”, French Colonial History Vol. 7 (2006): 109-128. JSTOR.