PARIS – Within the context of France’s ever-widening civil liberties crackdown, French elites have been abusing Muslim women by regularly releasing controversial comments on their hijab, in what they claim as a trial to “save them”.
“We are tired and sick of always being targeted, of being the subject of stereotypes and racist fantasies,” Sihame Assbague told AlterNet over the phone from her home in Villetaneuse, a suburb north of Paris.
“Muslim women are talked about every day, but we are not given the right to speak. Other people speak for us.”
Assbague, an activist against state racism and organizer for the website Contre Attaques, aimed at countering Islamophobia, is not the only frustrated Muslim in France.
Recently, French intellectuals and politicians have been shaming Muslim women publicly.
For example, France’s Socialist minister for family, children and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, provoked outrage after comparing Muslim women choosing to don hijab to African-Americans who defended slavery.
“Of course there are women who choose [the veil]. There were American negroes who were in favor of slavery,” Rossignol told a reporter, using the French word “nègres,” which has colonial and racist connotations.
The statement provoked an outraged response, with over 30,000 people signing a petition declaring, “it is terrible to see that persistent anti-black racism is used to justify and legitimize a gendered Islamophobia.”
However, powerful figures have rushed to Rossignol’s defense, including the billionaire French writer and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who urged a boycott of “those labels which have decided to create lines of clothes dedicated to Islamic fashion,” according to an interview recently published in Le Monde.
France’s Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls jumped into the fray on Monday. “The veil does not represent a fashion fad, no, it’s not a color one wears, no: it is enslavement of women,” he said at a roundtable on Islamism.
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, publicly backed Badinter in statements made Tuesday.
“Muslim women are being used to divide the communities that are being targeted,” Assbague said.
Amid growing resentment against veiled Muslim women, Muslims are living in a politically suffocating environment where hate crimes are becoming commonplace.
“There is an increase of hate violence, racist violence and racist discrimination,” said Assbague.
“A lot of women who wear the veil are prevented from going to school and working in public space. Every day we hear about a woman wearing the veil who is assaulted, arrested, and so on.”
Rania Masri, associate director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut, agreed.
“Elisabeth Badinter, who claims to be a feminist, is at the same time denying agency for women,” Masri said.
“My respect for agency and self-expression and freedom is what causes me to object fundamentally to invasive, discriminatory laws.”
The agony of Muslim women heightened after controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published an article last week claiming that all Muslims are responsible for acts of terror and implying that women who cover their hair are hiding bombs.
The outrage and despair this piece provoked was perhaps best captured by author and historian Teju Cole, who wrote: “Reading this extraordinary editorial by Charlie, it’s hard not to recall the vicious development of ‘the Jewish question’ in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in.”
Frustration of Assbague was even greater.
“This is a very difficult time for us here in France. Communities are being targeted for who they are, whether they are Black, Muslim or Roma. Islamophobia is coming from the state, political leaders, intellectuals and a lot of journalists,” she said.
Amid this climate of repression, massive protests against the state of emergency have swept France.
“We know we have to organize ourselves to fight for our rights, our freedom, for justice, and for the respect of our dignity,” Assbague emphasized.
“We are trying to do our best, but it’s a lot of work and energy, and the government is policing us. Because right now, when you say something which is against the politics of the government, you become a suspect.”