French Muslim women face daily struggle against stigmatisation, says New York Times survey

French prime minister Manuel Valls sides with the mayors who banned the burqini and says the survey gives a false impression of intolerance.
Two veiled Muslim women in a street in Marseille, southern France, on December 24, 2009. A survey by The New York Times claims Muslim women in France are victimised for wearing Muslim clothing. Michel Gangne / AFP
Two veiled Muslim women in a street in Marseille, southern France, on December 24, 2009. A survey by The New York Times claims Muslim women in France are victimised for wearing Muslim clothing. Michel Gangne / AFP

NICE// A fierce political row has erupted in France after an American newspaper’s survey on problems faced by French Muslim women depicted a daily struggle against stigmatisation and abuse.

France’s socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, who caused some surprise by siding with mostly right-wing mayors who imposed bans on burqinis, claimed the report in The New York Times gave a “false” and “intolerable” impression.

Women quoted in the survey, conducted online in French, English and Arabic, spoke of hostility having risen in the aftermath of the spate of terrorist attacks in France in recent years.

One, Charlotte Monnier, 23, a student from the southwestern city of Toulouse, said she was “insulted, spat on literally every day in the subway, on the bus, at school. Yet I have never insulted or hit someone.” She expressed concern that Muslims would eventually be made to wear yellow stars, as Jews were forced to do by Nazi occupiers during the Second World war.

Saima Ashraf, a Pakistani-born French Muslim who now lives in the UK and is deputy leader of the Barking and Dagenham borough council in East London, said she could not have reached such a position in France.

Her comment reflects social taboos rather than the law, since the accompanying photograph in The New York Times makes it clear that she wears a headscarf, not the face-covering veil forbidden in public in France though not in Britain.

But she told The National: “You don’t see women wearing the hijab in the public sector in France. They just wouldn’t recruit you. I love France but the country is breeding a whole generation of people, especially from North Africa, who are made to feel totally confused about the place of their culture, values and identity.”

Mr Valls and the mayors concerned have failed to explain why it is acceptable to target Muslim women wearing burqinis on the beach when clothing which covers more of the body is entirely permissible in the street.

The New York Times quoted Hajer Zennou, 27, from Lyon, as commenting with sadness on the widely circulated images of a Muslim woman surrounded by police on a beach in Nice. “This reminds me of my first days in high school after French law banned the hijab in schools,” she said. “My teacher forced me to take off my headscarf in front of all the other pupils. I was humiliated. Today, I felt my heart broken again. I just looked at this woman taking off her clothes and asked myself, when will it end?”

The newspaper said what emerged from its survey was “a portrait of life as a Muslim woman, veiled or not, in parts of Europe where terrorism has put people on edge. One French term was used dozens of times: ‘un combat’ or ‘a struggle’ to live day to day.”

Yet Mr Valls, who chose the French version of the news site Huffington Post, to make a detailed response, insisted the burqini was “not an anodyne bathing outfit, but a provocation, radical Islam seeking to impose itself in public places”. He did not explain how this was the case and successive courts have now overturned bans issued in many French resorts as a clear breach of the wearers’ rights.

Mr Valls also said the article did not reflect a broad “field study” but reported comments made following a so-called “postcolonial summer camp” in France from which “people with white skins” were excluded. The New York Times defended its methodology and said he was mistaken. The point was amplified by Le Monde newspaper which noted that the organisers of the summer camp had specified only a preference that those attending should have been victims of racism, a “controversial choice” but not one excluding white people.

The prime minister went on to defend burqini bans as extending rather than denying women’s freedom since, according to him, they challenged Salafist concepts of female bodies being “impure or inferior”. He criticised The New York Times for failing to talk to “the great majority of Muslim women who do not recognise themselves in this ultra-rigorous vision of Islam”.

The widespread nature of everyday abuse of Muslims in France — and not just women — is hardly in question.

Karim Bezzah, 47, a fireman and lifeguard whose duties include beach surveillance at La Faviere on the Mediterranean coast, told The National he was insulted when he pointed out to a dog-owning sunbather that pets were forbidden on the sands, as clearly indicated by signs. She called him an “espece de bougnoul”, one of the most offensive of racist terms in French, on a par with the N-word in English.

He lodged a complaint but officials decided it could not be pursued. “The law should work both ways,” he said, “If a woman wears a burqa despite the law, she has to accept the consequences — whatever her view of the law. But if a woman racially abuses me, she should also be answerable to the law.”

The wounds left by such remarks can be lasting. “For years, we have had to put up with dirty looks and threatening remarks,” Taslima Amar, 30, a teacher in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, told the newspaper survey. “I’ve been asked to go back home (even though I am home).”

Now she and her husband are exploring the possibility of leaving France.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: September 6, 2016 04:00 AM

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