France’s true face: Racism or secularism?

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SHAFAQNA – “There are women who choose [to wear headscarves], there were also American negroes who were for slavery”. This sentence was said by a French government minister on Wednesday. As shocking and offensive as those words are, for people from around the globe, in particular the Muslim and Black communities in France, some activists say they are not surprised, as those words “are just a continuation of the French government’s hypocritical and openly racist policy”.

Speaking on French radio RMC on Wednesday about fashion houses commercializing accessories such as veils or headscarves, Laurence Rossignol, the French minister of families, children and women’s rights, compared women who choose to wear headscarves to the “American Negroes who were for slavery” and blasted the fashion houses.

It all started on her Twitter account, when Rossignol expressed her unhappiness with British brand Marks & Spencer announcing it would offer full-body “burqini” swimsuits in its online store.

Several international clothing and accessories brands recently launched lines for “Islamic modest wear”: the Swedish giant H&M last year used a Muslim hijabi model as their main face for its advertising campaign, while the Japanese brand Uniqlo earlier this month announced it would begin selling hijabs in its London stores.

Last year Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, and Mango all launched varyingly “modest” collections for Muslim women.

Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana last January launched a collection of hijabs and abayas targeting wealthy Muslim women in the Middle East.

Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, told Anadolu Agency that Rossignol’s remarks “stigmatize Muslim women” and “violate France’s secularist principles.”

‘Using Daesh methods’

He accused Rossignol of not tackling serious and “real” problems such as unemployment and terrorism, and instead choosing to attack Muslim women.

“Instead of choosing the path of dialogue, she is stigmatizing Muslim women. She seems to be sliding a bit to the methods of Daesh recruiters,” Zekri said.

He continued: “It is as if she’s acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh with such remarks. You know, it is with these kinds of statements that Daesh recruiters brainwash their victims, saying, ‘Look, they don’t see you as citizens…’.”

Zekri said Rossignol, who “claims she naturally defends women in order not to be slaves … should go and pay a visit to Bois de Boulogne [a large park on the eastern side of Paris known as a hub of prostitutes and pimps] and liberate the poor women there, who are forced to sell their bodies for the profit of human trafficking networks.”

“I think she would do a more positive and effective job there than spreading hate against Muslim women.”

Zekri also accused Rossignol of not respecting the French secular system.

“The minister should respect our secular system. The same secularism that she demand that we – France’s Muslims – respect. Being a minister doesn’t give her the right to meddle in the way a woman wants to dress as long as she respects the laws of the French Republic and she doesn’t hide her face. She can’t tell a woman how and how not to dress,” Zekri said.

Rossignol had accused the brands offering modest clothing of “promoting an enslavement of women’s bodies.”

“When brands invest in the Islamic clothing market – just because it’s lucrative – they’re stepping away from their social responsibilities, and from some perspectives, they’re promoting an enslavement of women’s bodies,” she said.

Zekri slammed this argument, saying: “Fashion is fashion… It is simply fashion. Those brands and companies are doing business. What’s the problem with that?”

How secularism crosses the line into racism

Many Internet users accused Rossignol of racism and Islamophobia, and launched an online petition – reaching 15,000 signatures in just 10 hours – calling for her resignation. It will be given to French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Sarra, 27, a French Muslim woman working as a life coach, expressed her anger over the comments.

“I’m a proud French Muslim citizen. I have a strong will that led me a long way to where I am today, to persuade my goals in life. Neither my dad nor my husband obliged me to wear a hijab. And I will not let an ignorant person tell me how to dress,” she said.

“We [Muslims] are already suffering in our own country, on a daily basis, due to lunatic terrorists who proclaim our religion as their motive. Media and mainstream politicians have made us the enemy and an easy target because of a handful of bad apples,” she added.

“She [Rossignol] should feel ashamed of her comments and have enough dignity to resign,” she concluded.

Arielle, 36, a kindergarten director, also told us the government should sack Rossignol.

“We are living one in of France’s worst times. Keeping social peace in the country, especially since [last year’s] Charlie Hebdo attacks, became necessary, and this minister simply makes those outrageous juxtapositions, fueling stigma aimed at Muslim women and millions of descendants of slaves?”

“It is because of people like her that secularism is crossing the line into racism. It is wrong and she should take responsibility for her words,” insisted Arielle.

Systemic racism

For Yasser Louati, spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, such official “racist” remarks are nothing new and only “confirm the sentiments of members of this current government towards minorities”.

“The marginalization of Muslim women is not new, it dates back decades. The only difference about the Islamophobic and racist nature of those words is that they were said openly and publically at that time,” Louati told Anadolu Agency.

He added that the way “those words are being said by a member of the government is just a continuation of this government’s hypocritical and openly racist policy.”

“I mean we should not forget how PM Manuel Valls himself complained in a visit to an open market in a Parisian region that there were ‘too many black people here, more white people are needed’,” Louati said.

He said the French government should sanction Rossignol but added he doesn’t expect it.

“I don’t expect such a move from the same government that turned its Muslim population into the enemy within … from a prime minister who speaks about ‘Islamofascism’ …the same government that targeted Muslims under the pretext of the state of emergency …the same left-wing government which fought to implement racial profiling in police stations,” Louati explained.

Ironically, Rossignol’s comments came a few days after the French government launched the #TousUnisContreLaHaine (Everyone United Against Hate) campaign to underscore the dangers of prejudices and racism.

The campaign is based on six videos of real hate crimes that have occurred in France. The 30-second videos end with the text: “Racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim acts – They begin with words, and end with spitting, blows, and blood”.

“How can a government that plans to fight hate and racism accept one of its ministers speaking this way?” asked Louati.

He concluded: “For a country that pride itself on being the cradle of human rights, the hypocrisy can’t be more explicit”.

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