Dossier 19: Engendering Muslim Identities: Deterritorialization and the Ethnicization Process in France

Publication Author: 
Rachel Bloul
February 1998
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Thanks to the massive postcolonial immigration that has taken place in recent years, France is today a state in which people are increasingly concerned with their collective identities as either “Maghrebi”/ ”Muslim” or “French”. It is important to see that this creation of politicized ethnic identities exists on both sides, not just that of the minorities. The core process of “ethnicization” involves linking a specific population to distinctive cultural characteristics. The collective control of female behavior and the use of feminine representations is central to this process. In this regard, both French and Maghrebi men have contrasted the image of veiled Muslim women with that of presumed-emancipated second-generation “Beurettes” (the daughters of Maghrebi immigrants, called “Beurs”), notably in recent controversies over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to wear hair coverings in class. Some Maghrebi men have used this contrast to assert the need to protect Muslim interests, while some French have used the same images to arouse fears of the Muslim population. These issues have then become involved in contests for control over the public sphere.

The focus of in this article is deliberately on men. Although women, and most notably Beurettes, have been involved in Maghrebi collective action in France,[1] they have been relatively invisible in contrast to men, who create a Muslim collective identity as generically male. Moreover, French women are heard from but rarely in most public controversies. Men monopolized the earlier (1989-90) debate over the “veil.”[2] This situation is not unique, since it is possible to argue that cultural communities are generally “communities of males” (Appadurai, 1990:19). In the case of the Maghrebis/ Muslims, this process of “engendering” ethnicity can be seen as an understandably intense response to the situation of a population no longer defined by their identification with a particular territorially defined entity.

A frequently heard comment, and self-definition, of Maghrebi men goes like this: “We are Muslims: our women don’t (go out alone, wear lipstick, etc.), unlike French women, who do”. Frenchmen contribute to this claim to distinctiveness by making exactly the same distinctions about Muslim women. Maghrebi men who make such arguments are more likely to be involved in Muslim organizations with international connections and to disapprove of French government attempts to encourage a “French Islam”. They are thus more directly involved in an arena that makes issues of gender central in building a collective identity.

As Helie-Lucas (1994) argues, there, too, men not only turn women into markers of collective identity but also make them the very stakes of cultural competition. In so doing, they claim to be able to speak for Islam (Bloul, forthcoming). What is the relationship of Maghrebi “deterritorialization” to this use of “sexual politics”? As Arjun Appadurai (1990) argues, the increasingly integrated economic world-system and the dominance of Western media may not in the end be creating worldwide homogenization. “Global culture flows” may well create differences and an intensified sense of criticism or attachment to home politics in displaced populations. In this context, migrant communities, assaulted by the desires and fantasies depicted by the mass media, strive “to reproduce the family-as-microcosm of culture.” In these circumstances, “the honor of women becomes not just an armature of stable systems of cultural reproduction” but also increasingly “a surrogate for the identity of embattled communities of males” (Appadurai, 1990: 19). This may produce violence against women, who become victims of men’s sense of displaced identity.[3]

Diversity Among Muslims in France

The self-understanding of Maghrebi migrants and second-generation Beur men is varied and complex, even if all see themselves primarily as Muslim actors in a “Christian” (Nasrani), or white (Gauri) country. It is critical to recognize this complexity before generalizing about the transition to gendered (and twin) ethnic identities that has taken place in recent years in France.

My arguments are based on local field work in 1986-87, with a return visit in 1991, coupled with an analysis of the so-called “affair of the head scarves” over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to cover their heads. I worked in Mulhouse, a middle-sized industrial town in the northeast of France. Mulhouse has a high proportion of predominantly Maghrebi migrants, who are concentrated in the poorest surrounding suburbs, typical of the semi-ghettoized enclaves of postcolonial immigration in Europe (Belbahri, 1987; Berger and Mohr, 1982; Castles, 1984, 1986; Jourjon, 1980; Miles, 1982). The distinguishing characteristics of Qsarheim, the neighborhood in which I primarily worked, was its grassroots association of household heads, formed on the initiative of one local Tunisian man in 1984, under the tutelage of various French officials and “personalities,” including the local mayor and the head of a housing company. Interestingly, a similar initiative was taken in the nearest Maghrebi neighborhood, Qsarstadt,[4] but there the association soon lost its impetus and became inoperative in less than a year. The French officials involved explained this in terms of Qsarheim’s “dynamism” and “will to effect changes” in contrast to Qsarstadt’s “instability”, “population turnover”, “local rivalries”, and “lack of leadership”.

Maghrebis themselves had a different interpretation. They argued that Qsardstadt had a number (about a dozen at the time) of young, educated Maghrebi migrants, who came to Mulhouse to study in the local university research center, and often participated in the Association des musulmans d’Alsace et de Lorraine, a Muslim organization known by its acronym, AMAL. AMAL is identified in the minds of many with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement based in Egypt. By contrast, the Qsarheim leaders were older, more settled, much less educated, and often belonged to mainstream Maghrebi associations organized along national lines: the Association des Algérians en Europe (AAE), the Association des travailleurs et commerçants marocains (ATCM), and the Association franco-tunisienne (AFT). Rumor attributed the collapse of Qsarstadt’s local association to infiltration by AMAL.

Each association wanted to build a leisure center under French government patronage, with the necessary funds being raised from a variety of contributors, including the town council; the housing estate; the Fonds d’action sociale (FAS) and Comité pour le logement des travailleurs immigrés (COTRAMI), specialized national agencies of migrant welfare; and local donations. In 1987, the Qsardstadt center had been built, but it soon passed under the control of COTRAMI. AMAL, referred to by both Maghrebis and French as the “Muslim Brothers”, took the lead in expressing resentment at the takeover. This did nothing to improve Qsarstadt’s reputation as an inhospitable politicized ghetto. By contrast, in spite of considerable internal difficulties (Bloul, 1992), Qsarheim’s association survived. Qsarheim men were quite proud of the visible improvements in the neighborhood, although disaffection among the local youth drastically limited their ability to effect change, especially after a leadership crisis reduced their association to near paralysis.

Nonetheless, by 1991, not only had Qsarheim been prettified, but there was also a general feeling of more prosperity. There were fewer children playing in the streets, since, I was told, parents now sent their children to the various activities organized by the town council, “even if they had to pay”. More children of both sexes were encouraged in their studies and sent to university. To help with the costs, almost all mothers now worked, mostly part-time. This last bit of news was most surprising. Four years earlier, only four married women had worked (out of eighty four Maghrebi families): they had tended to be younger and better educated than most, and they were subjected to not a little criticism. All the other women stayed at home and generally abided by the customary restrictions. In 1987, a married woman going out alone to shop at the local market too regularly used to raise censorious eyebrows. What had happened?

When I commented on these various changes and remarked that Qsarheim was getting to be quite indistinguishable from its French surroundings, people beamed at me and said that six or seven families had even quit the neighborhood to build their own homes in better suburbs. Their example had stimulated the remaining families. The generally more affluent feel was attributed to the fact that in most families, the father’s salary was now complemented by the earnings of the mother and one or two elder siblings. The various changes suggested quite a shift in family strategies. There was little mention of the “dream to return”, of the house to build in the Maghreb. Instead, each family’s communal effort centered on improving their chances in France. What seemed most remarkable was the effect of this changed perspective on women’s positions. Over and over, people drew my attention to married women’s employment. Finally, they explicitly contrasted this with the fate of Qsarstadt, which, they told me, had become “quite fundamentalist”: most Qsarstadt women now “wore a veil” and their Leisure Center had “become a mosque”. Muslim proselytizers, some of my informants confirmed, had tried to “impose the veil here”, but without much success. When I inquired about the reasons for such “failure”, my female informants were categorical: husbands, they said, did not insist on the “veil” being worn, hence the “failure”. My observations confirmed this. Qsarstadt women wore a bewildering array of costumes: some were in traditional Maghrebi dress, some in modest Western clothes with an “Islamic scarf”, and a few in the remarkable Egyptian fashion of the full, black neguab, in which only the eyes are uncovered. If the Leisure Center had not quite “become a mosque”, it nonetheless now housed a prayer room, and use of its facilities was sex segregated.

Meanwhile, Qsarheim’s center was mostly used by children and youth. Qsarheim’s association, almost moribund when I left in 1987, had divided into a renters’ association, composed of older Maghrebi men (all former members), and the association “Animation et cultures”, whose directing committee now included a few French social workers and educationists and two Beur youths. Although women were still excluded, the inclusion of two sons was an extraordinary concession on the part of older men jealous of their patriarchal privileges (Bloul, 1992). It had been a battle, one son told me, but the older men were now reconciled to the change. The very different evolutions of two such similar neighborhoods should discourage easy generalizations about “the Muslim and/ or Maghrebi presence” in France. The “affair of the veil”, in spite of the facile characterizations in some of the media, offered another such lesson.

The affair started as an incident involving three Maghrebi girls who refused to take off their head scarves in class in spite of the headmaster’s demands, and were henceforth refused entrance to the classrooms. This soon became a national controversy, which at its peak figured daily and prominently in all national media for two months until mid December 1989. Nor was “the affair” resolved then. Rather, it was abruptly silenced when the effects of its political exploitation became dramatically obvious: local elections in November 1989 registered a marked increase in support for the right-wing National Front (FN), which led the FN leaders to make outrageous demands in its bid for power. This furious debate over females’ proper attire was dominated, almost monopolized, by men, both French and/or Muslims. Women’s opinions were hardly ever heard. Mme Mitterand took a position in favor of the “veil” in the name of individual rights, a stance widely criticized as a political embarrassment to her husband. Some French feminists and female politicians belatedly opposed the veil, and their opinion was duly registered and forgotten (Le Monde, October 25, p.14). Although the positions of a few well-known Muslim women (Mme Sebbar, Mme Tazdait) and of Beurettes’ associations were reported (ibid.; L’Express, November 3, p. 10), their arguments were not on the whole publicized and even less debated. Pride of place was given to prominent men’s views: French and Muslim male intellectuals, politicians, and religious representatives heatedly argued the vexed question of republican secularity as an ethnically neutral space. In addition, some Frenchmen delighted in defending Muslim women’s rights. In particular, the Freemasons, not particularly noted for their practice of gender equality, were the first to raise this issue.

Blurring the usual distinctions between Left and Right,[5] however, the question of women’s rights was quickly downplayed. The debate centered resolutely on secularity, the problems of immigration, the possible birth of a “French” (i.e., “democratic, secular, and privatized”) version of Islam, and the consequences of all this for French identity. What is most important, and has been little commented on, is that both French and Muslim professional opinion-makers took various positions for and against the veil in the name of the same values—that is, secularity and individual rights. For those in favor of the veil, secularity was a matter of “ensuring that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and to express it freely and safely. This right is only limited by the respect of the right of the other” (Cheikh Haddam, head, Paris Great Mosque, quoted in Le Monde, October 24, 1989, p. 16). For those opposing the veil, secularity meant the deliberative avoidance of any particularistic, symbolic inscription of institutional (republican) space, understood to be the only guarantee for tolerance and individual freedom. Thus, in a typical argument: “Displaying one’s minority group symbols against each [symbol] of the other groups [denotes] a logic… of intolerance and of ethnic exclusion, precisely the logic that the spirit of true secularity fights” (Cocq, 1989: 2).

Opinion polls showed that French and Muslim public opinion in general coincided with the parameters set by the media debate. French people, for example, were not so much opposed to the veil per se (32 percent only opposed the wearing of the veil in the street) as to the veil as an ethnic marker in republican institutional space such as schools (75 percent against the veil in school). Second-generation Beurs showed the whole gamut of public positions for and against the veil in the name of secular values and individual rights, a result congruent with a marked gallicization of norms among Beurs (Bloul, 1992). Among Muslims in general, women (49 percent) and older people (66.7 percent) were more opposed to the veil in school than men (42 percent) and youth (43.6 percent) (Le Monde, November 30, 1989, p. 14). Most Beurs defending the veil did so in the name of a specific understanding of secularity and individual rights as respect of differences, while older Maghrebis opposed it in the name of discretion.

Thus, the divisions among Muslims in France, although downplayed in general by the French media, were as great as among the native French population. In addition, most Muslims, whatever their positions, appealed to the same values (freedom and individual rights) that French opponents of the veil in school invoked, and that form the core of the dominant French public discourse on morality. Finally, one must add that in spite of the scale of the debate, no resolution emerged. Whether the “veil” was or was not to be allowed in school was deemed a question to be answered in each specific circumstance. In this case, the girls involved removed their scarves the following January (1990) after the king of Morocco demanded it of their father, to the embarrassment of a French government whose relations with King Hassan II were already strained.[6]

Notes Toward a Gendered Approach

The data above shows the determining importance of male social actors. Whether French or Maghrebi, men used female attire and behavior as markers of a distinctive collective Islamic presence and identity—or as a way to blur distinctions. They also illustrate the divisions among Muslim/ Maghrebi men. Finally, this account shows the appropriation of the dominant French moral vocabulary of freedom, secularity, and human rights to legitimate all the actors’ strategies, however different they might be. These common elements do not adequately describe whatever dynamic processes underlie the mutability of Muslim and Maghrebi realities in France, but they do offer a start. Obviously, the different fates of Qsarheim and Qsarstadt are related to the different roles and circumstances of their leading men. Men in Qsarheim have come to believe that they can recreate a male social life for themselves through their association. In it, they have found, or believe they have found, some access to French public life and public recognition. They meet with the local mayor and “important” people, and the local newspapers write about them. These are significant and frequently cited signs of collective prestige. The men are also proud of the neighborhood renovations they have achieved.

These are men who came to France before the 1970s in hopes of bettering their socio-economic status. They had no political or cultural goals, and for a long time they dreamed of return. They had throughout strong ties with the Maghreb, and most were members of the more traditional migrants’ associations, organized along national lines. When they slowly abandoned hope of making an economically successful return to the countries of their birth, taking into account the economic and political troubles in the Maghreb and their children’s gallicization, they focused on succeeding in France. All this spurred them to redirect family strategies toward integration, which involved women working to pay for their children’s studies. A few Qsarheim families had built their own houses in France rather than in the Maghreb, and this was a stimulus to others to attempt their own escape from the “Arab quarter”.

The Qsarstadt “leaders”, if not the bulk of the Qsarstadt population, differ in that they are younger men who came to Mulhouse primarily to study. They belong to Islamic associations whose programs include political reform in the Maghreb, as well as proselytizing among Muslims, and even to some extent among the ethnic French. They also maintain strong cultural and social ties to the Maghreb, and they have not necessarily ruled out the possibility of return; they perceive themselves as Muslims first and have a very strong sense of belonging to a transnational, not to say universal, Islamic space. Unlike the older migrants in Qsarheim, who often split into opposed parties along national divides, Qsarstadt leaders form friendships and alliances across national lines on the basis of their Muslim allegiance.

For the Qsarstadt leaders, no participation in French public space can occur at the expense of their Islamic identity. Unlike Qsarheim men, they make their Islamic distinctiveness a central component of their recognized identity. To that end, and in line with their mastery of the moral vocabulary of freedom and individual rights, they mobilize Islam, within the limited sphere of the French public scene, following the logic of minorities’ ethnic politics of “culture difference”. This is a language familiar to them as students and semi-professionals with a Westernized formal education.

This is not to say that this particular type of mobilization of Islam is their only, or preferred, strategy in other domains. It is simply that in their fight for self-recognition in France, Qsarstadt leaders, unlike Qsarheim men, have chosen to stress their Islamic distinctiveness, emphasizing an Islamic allegiance (over mere national ones) and identifying themselves as members of an educated transnational Muslim elite. And one of the ways in which they mark their collective difference is though their women’s distinctive appearance in public, which is all the more remarkable in that few of these men themselves display any distinctive signs of their Muslim allegiance. Few wear beards, and they dress more in track suits, jeans, leather jackets, and casual Western attire than in white robes, which I have seen only the imam wearing. They are not alone in using women as markers of collective identify: as noted above, a common Maghrebi self-definition asserts: “We are Muslims, our women behave/ look this way”. Maghrebi women have some autonomy, but their individual freedom of choice, their margins of action, are severely limited precisely because they are in the position of individuals facing collective social might, whether French or Maghrebi. The three schoolgirls of the veil affair illustrate this most pertinently. They were presented by supporters of the veil as independent moral actors, but by detractors as the puppets of either patriarchal tyranny or religious militants. Two cartoons illustrate the pressure presumed to impinge on them from a father in one case (Figure 1. ‘Are you for or against the veil [le voile] at school?’ Le Monde, November 7, 1989) and from a trio of powerful French and Muslim males—the “ayatollah,” the headmaster, and the prefect—in the second (Figure 2. ‘Here are the ayatollah, the headmaster, and the prefect back again to find out what you are wearing today!’ Le Monde, November 7, 1989, p. 1). Ironically, the monopolization of the debate by men, whether French or Maghrebi, questions their autonomy just as much as their abandonment of the scarf after Hassan II’s intervention with their father. The acrimony of this male political debate over female attire clearly points to the collective stake at the heart of this particular bout of sexual politics, namely, the role and use of women in the constitution, and public display, of collective identities. Why else would three scarves threaten French identity and values or assert Muslim ones? Control over women is also a brutal affirmation of the genderization of such collective identities, whether French or Maghrebi, as generically male.

The Gendered Politics of Representation in a Multicultural Context

Feminists have long argued that collective identities are androcentric. Julia Kristeva (1989), for example, argues that collective identities are produced along a logic of masculine identity formation that includes rejection of some “other” and stresses the control, if not the suppression, of differences within.[7] As far as Western cultures are concerned, many feminist analysts have expressed their suspicion of “substitutionalist universalism,” inasmuch as they detect male, middle-class, white men profiled behind the equal individual of democratic discourse (Benhabib, 1986; Fraser, 1989; Love, 1991). Similarly, the case for the androcentric mold of the Islamic ummah has been made repeatedly by Muslim feminist scholars (Abrous, 1989; Ait Sabbah, 1986; Jowkar, 1986; Lazreg, 1988; Mernissi, 1983, 1987). This argument is at the core of my understanding of the gendered politics of representation as illustrated in the male public debate about female attire.

In this case, deterritorialization brought about by Maghrebi postcolonial immigration raises the problems of the cultural reproduction of identity and values, not only for Maghrebis facing possible gallicization, but also, I would argue, for the French, whose territory now contains “strange foreigners”, to paraphrase Kristeva (1989: 274-77). Because of the gendered dynamics of collective identity, deterritorialization has specific consequences for both French and Maghrebi men, as male vehemence during the affair of the veil so aptly demonstrates.

The affair challenged patriarchal and fratriarchal understandings of gender roles and identities. In this particular instance, Maghrebi fathers and religious hierarchies were joined by Catholic and Jewish clerics who demonstrated unreserved support for the veil. Together they opposed the free circulation of women in the fraternal and secular French Republic. Those among the second-generation Beurs hoping to join the French fraternity (such as Arezki Dahmani of France-Plus), however, supported a strict interpretation of secularity. Others, less confident of their place in France or more involved in a process of ethnicization, defensively supported the veil and their right to “difference” in protecting “their women”. For them, Islam has become the main resource and guarantor of a marginalized and ethnicized androcentric collective identity (Bloul, 1992), and Muslim women have become the privileged site for the affirmation and display of such identity, quite apart from any individual decision women may make. Frenchmen’s responses betray their understanding of this collective use of women. As Qsarstadt and Qsarheim men are also well aware, the existence of “veiled women” in the French public space—whatever the motive—is perceived by Frenchmen as a Muslim male challenge to their own control of French republican fraternal space.

In this regard, the disruptions of masculinity brought about by deterritorialization are aptly captured, for the French side, by the particularly polysemic caricature (Figure 3. ‘Give them this… they want this!’ Le Canard enchainé, October 25, 1989). The ugly, old, neutered Catholic nun is an obvious reference to the convergence of views of religious leaders of all denominations in favor of the veil. The nun stands for the old religious and patriarchal orders as seen from a modern French male point of view: denying access to women in the name of the old orders is out. The glamorization of the Muslim student is counterfactual, as a photograph of the students suggests (Figure 4. Two students at the Collège Gabriel-Havez de Creil, Oise). But it reveals what the unconscious stakes are: the insupportable presence of forbidden women on the collective male territory of republican institutions. This is an old theme in the history of French/ Maghrebi colonial relations, here given a new postcolonial twist.

The presentation of both the nun and the sexy Muslim student as active agents is also counterfactual. While the caricatured nun is a classic example of scapegoating (the victim as oppressor), such presentation of the hyper-sexualized Muslim woman as an autonomous actor is more complex. The cartoon is obviously addressed to the French viewer as paradigmatically male. It is also a deliberate attempt to enlist the sympathy of young Beurettes, quite congruent with the “chivalrous” position taken by most Frenchmen in the debate, who suddenly became champions of women’s rights. By fantasizing young Muslim women as autonomous actors (while denouncing their subjection!), it establishes with them an imagined alliance in the ridiculing of the old, repressive patriarchal orders represented by a nun (rather than an imam). Thus the French male viewer can fantasize complicity with a forbidden postcolonial object of desire. Finally, this fantastic seduction is staged without compromising a remarkably persistent misogyny, quite congruent with the more habitual exclusion of women from French republican fraternal space.

The Gallicization of Maghrebi Values and the Ethnicization of Islam

As noted above, every (male) participant in the debate over the “Islamic scarves,” whatever his origins or opinions, invoked freedom, secularity, and individual rights as supportive arguments for or against the veil. The pre-eminence of this particular moral vocabulary, however French or indigenized its widely different interpretations might be, is an extremely interesting, if often ignored, fact. Nor is that moral vocabulary limited to the various Maghrebi, Muslim, and French social commentators with access to the media. Qsarstadt men defend their right to cultural difference and often make Islam part of their ethnic Muslim identity in the name of their inalienable rights as equal individuals. Cheikh Haddam’s argument, quoted above, in favor of veiling because “secularity is about ensuring that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and to express it freely and safely” articulates a very similar position. This comment effectively reduces Islam to a mere “opinion of atomized individuals. This is a peculiarly ironic product of the global embryonic transnational Muslim elite, yet has fostered the gallicization/ Westernization of Maghrebi children in France.

Qsarheim men also use this vocabulary, although they are more skeptical. For them, freedom and individual rights are specific French values (as opposed to Maghrebi practices), which Maghrebi men in France can and should use to their advantage. But such reasoned application is characteristically specific and contextualized. “We are in France now. We must do things in the correct democratic way”, a Qsarheim association president said to restore procedural order to a committee discussion that had become personal and heated. “There is freedom here…freedom is dangerous for those not used to it. Moroccans in France tend to abuse their [newfound] freedom and go bad”, a Moroccan father said. The same reasoning was applied by men to Maghrebi women: they couldn’t have the same freedom as French women because, not being used to it, they would “exaggerate” if not under the firm restraint of Maghrebi men.

As for the younger Beurs, they characteristically show a marked gallicization of their moral understanding and practices, albeit quite limited and circumscribed in relation to the status of Maghrebi women and of Islam as guarantor of an androcentric Beur collective identity (Bloul, 1992). This preeminence of the moral vocabulary of freedom and individual rights permeates the whole discussion of the modernization of Islam in France. Just as even the most gallicized Beurs affirm their allegiance to Islam (Bloul, 1992), very few, if any, Maghrebi men’s understanding of their faith is un-influenced by the (French) public moral discourse of universal individual rights, although such influence does not extend to the discriminatory consequences of sexual politics, as has been documented above. But then, as feminist critiques of substitutionalist universalism show (see above), French women must also bear the effects of similarly discriminatory sexual politics. Thus, siding with some French proposals about a “French Islam”, Beurs sometimes propose a model of gallicized Islam characterized as democratic, secular, and privatised (Kaltenbach, 1991). Relevant to this also are a number of government initiatives, most notably the establishment of a consultative Islamic body, the Conseil de réflexion sur l’Islam en France (also noted in Diop and Michalak).

Others argue that a fundamental re-reading of Islam would purify it of historical misconceptions, since Islam is in fact compatible with the key democratic concepts of equality and solidarity. Many have more nuanced positions and consider the basic texts of Islam, not as absolute guidelines for modern everyday life, but as requiring sophisticated exegesis (Arkoun, 1986). Such developments characterize the central paradox of Islamic renewal in France as it simultaneously engages globalization (or is it gallicization?) and ethnicization.

Conclusion: On Ethnic Revivals and Androcentric Cultural Processes

Qsarstadt leaders, and others, ethnicize Islam as a Maghrebi attribute in France, while simultaneously proselytizing for Islam as an alternative universalism. This localized strategy, like those revealed by the debate of “difference” generated around the affair of the veil, appears to be the ironic by-product of the deterritorialization resulting from global cultural flows—in this case, the transnational migration of Maghrebi Muslims and their adoption of the key French politico-moral concepts of equality, freedom, and secularity. The French also contribute to such processes. Such processes and strategies operate within the parameters set by the gendered politics of representation according to which women are both markers and stakes for androcentric collective identities. Not only in France but in many instances of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, a similar paradox between the globalization of the Islamic ecumene and the ethnicization of the relevant Islamic communities exists and is also to be understood in the context of the gendered politics of identity.

The final ironic result of the gendered politics of representation in a multicultural context is the effect on the host population. In this particular case, French perceptions of “an internal Islamic threat” have led to another ethnicization process—namely, the ethnicization of French identity, most crudely and powerfully expressed in the demagogic discourses of the National Front, which raises as a symbol of singular collage of Gaulish Christianity. The anxious interrogations of French identity and cultural values that have multiplied recently in France are another symptom of the push toward this dual ethnicization process. The range of these discussions, from affirmations of ethnocentrism to a revisitation of universalist ideals, allows one a slender hope that such twin processes of ethnicization might be counteracted. This cannot be done successfully, however, if the gendered nature of the processes of cultural reproduction is not understood.

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Source: This essay first appeared in Metcalf, Barbara Daly (ed). Making Muslim Space in Northern America and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 234-250 and is reproduced with permission herewith.

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[1] Beur collective action made its first national impact in 1983 when several hundred Beurs and Beurettes marched though France to Paris to protest against racist incidents (Bouzid, 1984; Jazouli, 1986). Beurettes played an important role, although relatively few in number, and some have been politically active ever since. One, Mme Djida Tazdait, has been elected to the European Parliament.

[2] The situation has somewhat changed since the resurgence of the debate in 1994, when the then minister for education, François Bayrou, expressly forbade the wearing of “conspicuous symbols” of group identity in the republican institutional space of the schools. When a number of adolescent females protested against what they perceived as discrimination, French media depicted them as “manipulated by extremist groups” and “blind” to the Islamist danger to themselves as women and to the advantages of liberal French gender arrangements. I have argued elsewhere that this contemporary French defense of Muslim women’s rights echoes the French colonial “sexual politics” of penetration in Algeria (Bloul, 1995).

[3] Appadurai’s use of gender shows how unreflectively he associates gender and women: he mentions gender only in relation to women as victims of (increased) male violence resulting from certain deterritorialization effects. This derivative use robs the concept of gender of much of its analytical potential vis-à-vis “the cultural politics of deterritorialization”.

[4] Both names are pseudonyms.

[5] The rightist opposition delighted in taking an unusual position for women’s rights. The parties of the Left and the usual antidiscrimination associations, as traditional supporters of women’s rights (in lieu of France’s very weak feminist organizations) and of minorities, were in an ambiguous situation, which produced belated attempts to defuse the question as much as possible.

[6] Hassan II of Morocco opposed François Mitterand’s vague desire to give immigrants the right to vote. He had also been considerably offended by the publication in France of a book and various articles denouncing Moroccan human rights failures.

[7] Another version of this argument (Bloul, 1992) is partly inspired by the works of Chodorow (1978, 1989), Fox-Keller (1984), and Pateman (1988).