Secularism complicates French feminism in the #MeToo era

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron likes to make grandiose promises. When he took office last year, he called gender equality nothing less than the “grande cause” of his upcoming term, naming Marlène Schiappa secretary of equality between men and women. No career bureaucrat, she is best-known for her website Maman Travaille (Mom Works), France’s first online resource for working mothers, and an anthology she edited called Letters to My Uterus.

The state of debate in France is no boon to progress, however. Any exchange about identity here—whether on Twitter or at the National Assembly—inevitably unleashes an anxiety-ridden back-and-forth about the slow creep of new ideas into the national conversation. The #MeToo movement is no exception. Known here as #BalanceTonPorc, or Expose Your Pig, the movement has fallen prey to tired tropes about seduction, puritanism and the very definition of women’s “liberation.”

Last month, Schiappa, 35, organized a “summer university” on feminism to inaugurate the rentrée, France’s return to activity after the long summer vacation. The two-day conference featured journalists, activists, health-care professionals, historians and government officials, who debated the challenges facing feminism before a packed amphitheater.

Schiappa’s decision to feature an exchange on “feminism and the veil”—a topic that has been a fixture in media and politics since the 1980s—was not surprising. The debate pitted Lunise Marquis, a member of the Printemps Républicain—an ultra-secular movement on the “Republican Left,” which I’ve described in past newsletters and boasts an aggressive presence on social media—against Laura Cha, the spokeswoman of Lallab, a feminist organization founded in 2016 that seeks to give voice to Muslim women. The debate followed a recurrent script about Islam’s “compatibility” with French values; many in the audience booed when Cha spoke.

Marquis’s reaction to what Cha was trying to say—that she and Lallab are tired of talking about the headscarf ad nauseum and want to raise other issues—shows a stubborn divide over competing interpretations of feminism. Those enduring tensions seem to further complicate, and even stall, the evolution of debates about women and feminism in France.

                           Lunise Marquis of the Printemps Républicain debates Lallab spokeswoman Laura Cha

Muslim and feminist

I met Sarah Zouak, a co-founder of Lallab, at a coffee-shop near the central Place de la République. She’s 28 years old, and as we start chatting, I think that if I weren’t interviewing her about her organization, we might be friends. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she grew up in the working-class Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine at a moment when 9/11 was influencing stereotypes about Islam in the United States and Europe. Her classmates often implied that she—bubbly, social and at the top of her class—was an “exception” to other Muslims, especially Muslim women, who they assumed were docile and dependent on men.

After high school, she enrolled in a “prépa” for commerce—one of the prestigious training programs France’s most ambitious high school students enter after graduation—and afterward started working at a marketing firm. She quickly realized it wasn’t for her, however, craving work with “a bit more meaning.” That led her to AIDES, a non-profit dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS and defending the rights of those afflicted with the disease.

Advocacy work clicked with her, and she enrolled in a master’s program in international affairs, planning to study global feminist movements, especially in the Muslim world. “When I submitted my proposal, my thesis director said it wasn’t possible to be Muslim and a feminist at the same time,” Zouak said, smiling slightly. That argument—not only that Islam and feminism are incompatible, but that practicing Muslims can’t be feminists as a sort of rule—seems to be dogma for at least the older generation of the French feminist establishment.

 

                        Lallab cofounder Sarah Zouak

 

“I found that very violent—after having heard for 25 years that as a Muslim woman I needed to liberate myself, and in order to do that, I would need to leave my faith and my origins aside,” Zouak told me. That inspired her to launch “Woman SenseTour,” a documentary project that aims to “eliminate stereotypes about Muslim women” and reveal their plurality. She traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia to “meet, support and (re)valorize the image of Muslim women acting for change in favor of women’s and girls’ autonomy,” as the project’s website states. When she returned to Paris in 2016, she saw an “urgent need” to create an association that would address the diverse experiences of Muslim women—a lacuna in an otherwise crowded feminist landscape dominated by organizations that approach them with “a paternalistic tone.”

Muslim women face “a double discrimination, linked both to their gender and their religion,” she told me. Generally speaking, the French mainstream is skeptical of the argument that women of color experience overlapping forms of discrimination—the principle of intersectionality developed by UCLA Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading scholar of critical race theory. The same holds true for Islamophobia, which many here assert is a concept invented by Islamist groups to galvanize support for their cause among and sow resentment against the West.

The cards were stacked against Lallab, then, from the outset. “For the first six months, everything was great,” Zouak said. That ended abruptly in January 2017, when Attika Trabelsi, a co-president of Lallab who wears a headscarf, faced off in a televised debate with Manuel Valls, who had recently resigned as prime minister. He is notorious for his restrictive vision of French secularism, or laïcité, which helped inform his staunch support for a “burkini ban” on French beaches. Trabelsi denounced Valls’s claim that the headscarf was a sign of a woman’s submission as “humiliating,” noting that she—and all women she knows who wear one—do so by choice. “Women can choose freely what they want to be. If they’re topless or veiled, it’s the same thing,” she insisted. He shook his head in emphatic disagreement. “Do you prefer a France that imposes on women,” she retorted, “or a France where they choose freely?”

The unsurprisingly heated exchange gained instant media attention. “Boom!” Zouak said. “That was it.” Articles slamming the organization flooded the internet. “Lallab is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, Lallab is a terrorist organization. At first it was funny,” she recalled, chuckling. “We were like, come see us at our offices goofing around. But then we realized they were serious, that it was part of a concerted effort to silence us, to make us seem like a threat.” (Lallab has legal status as an association approved by the French government, and, as required, is transparent about its funding. It has firmly denied the allegations, and does not characterize itself as a religious organization).

                        Lallab members at the organization’s general assembly in October

The online harassment that followed had real consequences. In August 2017, Lallab was supposed to participate in the civic service, a voluntary, state-funded program that enables young people to do internships in the public interest. Members of the Printemps Républicain, along with followers of the far-right National Front Party, sent aggressive messages to the civic service agency, accusing it of funding a religious group—that supports political Islam, to boot—and violating laïcité.

Under pressure, the agency withdrew Lallab’s accreditation. Days later, prominent academics, journalists and activists published a letter in the newspaper Libération denouncing the smear campaign that led to the move. Ultimately, Zouak told me, Lallab met with the head of the agency, who agreed to restore its application. But it was pushed down to the bottom of the pile, and the group has yet to receive any interns. In another incident, a volunteer for Lallab lost her salaried position at another association because the Paris mayor, faced with rumors that she was an Islamist agent, had threatened to withdraw its financing unless they let her go.

All the reactions have at least had the effect of raising Lallab’s profile, Zouak said smiling. Its members are increasingly invited to participate in TV debates and exchanges with other feminist organizations. “We’re always invited to talk about the veil,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But we’d prefer to speak on so many other subjects—access to the workforce, street harassment. But bizarrely, no. There’s only one theme they care about.”

That’s why she found the exchange at Schiappa’s conference so discouraging. Not only was the group’s spokeswoman forced to pick up old debates about the headscarf once again, but the audience seemed unwilling to hear her side. “We’re in this room full of people who call themselves feminists,” Zouak sighed. “We had been talking about the importance of sisterhood for hours, and the audience boos when a Muslim woman opens her mouth.”

Competing visions of feminism

In August 2016, then-Prime Minister Valls declared that Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic—considered the personification of freedom and reason, and the Goddess of Liberty—is depicted with “an exposed breast because she nourishes the people.” “She’s not veiled!” he added emphatically. Historians quickly accused him of misrepresenting the national emblem. But he is hardly alone in asserting that a certain vision of a “liberated” woman is a part of national identity.

Take, for example, a letter published in the newspaper Le Monde in January, signed by Catherine Deneuve and some 100 other prominent women. The signatories lambasted the #MeToo movement as an affront to French gallantry and evidence of creeping puritanism that would upend flirtation and deny men their “right to bother.” The letter stoked an outcry. But even as many prominent feminists denounced its lack of solidarity with survivors of sexual violence and victims of harassment, some of its critics also seemed to give credence to the warning of a creeping imposed moral order—an “American-influenced” prudishness.

The same anxiety lies at the heart of debates over Muslim women. Anne Bruneteaux-Dahhan, 50, converted in her 20s. Now she runs Rencontre Avec l’Islam, an organization in Angers, in western France, that aims to increase awareness about Islam and often gives presentations at public schools. She described her unease over what she considers a narrow expectation of what it means for a woman to be free. “She doesn’t necessarily liberate herself by undressing—that’s a delusion,” Bruneteaux-Dahhan told me. “It’s reasonable to look for another form of personal fulfillment not necessarily included in modern society’s vision of an ‘emancipated woman.’”

During one class presentation she described, several students asked her if she wore a bathing suit to swim. No, she said, something with more coverage. The teacher immediately took her aside to tell her “that was unacceptable because the girls must wear a bathing suit to the pool,” she recalled.

‘Can we agree that women haven’t been killed because they didn’t want to wear lipstick, or refused to wear heels?’

Bruneteaux-Dahhan didn’t believe she had acted inappropriately, however. “There are many reasons other than religion that a teenager might not want to wear a bathing suit to the pool with classmates.” The teacher disagreed. “We were up against a wall: For her, a woman liberates herself by exposing her body; for me, it’s about saying that I don’t want people to see me in a bathing suit. So I told her, ‘I don’t agree with your system of emancipation.’”

Bruneteaux-Dahhan’s comments resonate with some of the young women I’ve interviewed. Asmine, a Muslim high school student in St. Denis—a low-income Paris suburb, home to a significant Muslim population and routinely cast by the media and politicians as a hotbed for Islamism—who covers her hair with a turban, compared her modest attire to her non-Muslim friends who prefer to wear baggy clothing. “No one points that out,” she said. “People can’t accept that a woman who wears a headscarf can also be ‘free’—they’re obsessed with this idea that it means she belongs to a man. But not at all. I think it’s become clear that the ‘free woman’ doesn’t exist anywhere.”

Both sides, Asmine acknowledged, put women into boxes too readily. She was furious when her 13-year-old sister—who doesn’t wear a headscarf—told her she was shocked to see women dancing at a local studio. “She told me, ‘women who wear headscarves shouldn’t be doing that.’ What was she talking about? Both sides fuel a misunderstanding about what it means, as if it has one meaning at all.”

Muslim feminists in France, French feminists in the Muslim world

“Universal” feminists tend to reject the notion that feminism should accommodate different cultural realities for different women. Among them, Martine Storti also calls herself an “old feminist”—she’s 72, and was an active participant in the women’s mobilization movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

“I fought for women regardless of who they were or where they were from,” she told me over tea on a crisp morning. But she believes the conversation has taken a troubling turn. The 1980s, she tells me, saw the emergence of an “identitarian” reading of social issues, including feminism, across the spectrum. “If we focus on our ‘identity,’ we’re working with what separates us,” she added, describing a belief system in which “women belong first to their communities”—ethnic, religious or other—rather than to a borderless community of women.

That has created two camps, she said: “Those who say French women are the bearers of national identity, which inherently includes equality between men and women, and those who argue that feminism itself is a Western invention, and that if you’re with the feminists you’re with colonialism, with the oppressor. In both cases, women are instrumentalized.”

Storti puts groups such as Lallab in the latter category. “If they choose to wear the headscarf freely, good for them,” she said—she doesn’t insist that it’s necessarily a capitulation. “But I still have trouble seeing it as a sign of emancipation, when around the world women are fighting the obligation to wear it and can be killed for taking it off.”

She compares today’s criticisms of universal feminism to the debates that took place during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “In 1979, I went to Tehran to support the Iranians who rejected the chador,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “And what did the Islamists say at the time? That those women were with the Shah—with ‘the Americans,’ with the West. And those feminists lost.”

Storti believes France’s Muslim feminists reproduce that dynamic, labeling women’s emancipation a Western concept attached to colonial impulses without addressing women’s experiences in countries where civil rights are limited and the veil is obligatory. “I’m on the side of the women who don’t have the choice, in France, but even more abroad. Lallab seems to abandon the international context. Of course in Iran or Afghanistan they’re against the obligatory headscarf, but in France it’s different?”

                         Muslim feminist Hanane Karimi in Paris’s 13th arrondissement

But for Zouak, the Lallab co-founder, that reasoning proves the need for activists who focus on the experiences of Muslim women in France. “Everyone likes to tell us about the situation elsewhere—that way France doesn’t have to see its own problems.” She finds it strange that her detractors constantly bring up Iran and Saudi Arabia, when she and other members of Lallab were born and raised in France.

“It’s very simple,” she said. “We talk about what we know. We are in solidarity with women in Iran, but that’s not our lived experience.” On her trip to Iran for her documentary, she “met incredible women who aren’t waiting for me or any other French person to come save them. We can work together and create partnerships abroad, but Lallab is trying to change French society.”

France’s Muslim feminists don’t believe their domestic focus precludes a broader reflection on Islam or the Muslim world. “Of course we pose the question of the obligation to wear the headscarf,” Hanane Karimi, who recently finished her doctoral thesis on French secularism and women, told me in an interview. “A lot of us arrive at the conclusion that yes, it’s another incorporation of masculine domination—just like heels, like beauty, like so many things.”

Storti quickly rebuked that analogy. “Sure, the advertising and fashion industries sexualize women’s bodies, and we need to fight both,” she said. “But can we agree that women haven’t been killed because they didn’t want to wear lipstick, or refused to wear heels?”

Considering their arguments—about imposed veils in authoritarian theocracies and rigid expectations of female beauty in Western democracies—I think about the way women’s clothing informs perceptions about their beliefs or behavior. That rape victims are routinely asked what they had been wearing or how much they had had to drink—or the circumstances surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation—come to mind.

Karimi notes the need to work within the confines of the national climate. Muslim feminists often find themselves caught between general suspicion about Islam and the reality of conservatism in certain segments of France’s Muslim communities. There was serious backlash, for example, when she and fellow activists contested women’s relegation to the basement of the Grand Mosque in Paris during services. “What we say about our advocacy, what we don’t—we have to be strategic. We don’t necessarily talk about our questioning about the religious order—the role of the mother, hetero-normativity, women’s bodies, modesty. Those are real questions we ask, but in the current political context it would be inopportune to issue them outside our own circle. It would be instrumentalized against us, and that’s not the goal.”

That trap has prompted many intersectional feminists to organize gatherings limited to people of color—spaces where they can talk freely without the risk of their statements being misinterpreted or manipulated. Those “non-mixed” meetings have enraged the political establishment. “In the name of feminism, in the name of solidarity, we can work with women who don’t agree with us. But that’s not where the debate is today,” Karimi lamented. “It’s become ‘for or against’ [the veil], but what does that mean, from a feminist perspective? That if you’re against it, it’s legitimate to exclude women who wear it? There, we don’t agree.”

I’m left wondering whether feminism’s fundamental objective has become lost in such a polarized climate. “In every sphere of society, who’s in charge? Men,” Karimi said firmly. “In religion? Men. In academia? Men. The state? Men. Who makes the laws? Men. At least about fighting the patriarchy, we can all agree.”

About the Author

Karina Piser’s research will explore measures to promote French secularism in public high schools in immigrant-heavy areas. Beginning in suburbs of Paris, she will interview students, teachers, administrators, and education-policy practitioners to better understand how the government is targeting schools to improve social cohesion in the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. Prior to receiving the ICWA fellowship, Karina was an editor at World Politics Review, and has previously held positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights in Tunis, Tunisia. She holds a master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and World Politics Review, among other publications.