France | Present Company

Muslims challenge the discourse surrounding their marginalisation

01 January 2015
The killing of Malik Oussekine led to protests across France in 1986.
Pool AVENTURIER / DUCLOS / Gama-Rapho / Getty Images

This article from the January 2015 print issue was published before the killing of twelve people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

SARAH OUSSEKINE REMEMBERS very well the morning of 6 December 1986. She was getting ready for her first day on a new job when she heard on the radio that a student had been killed in Paris the previous night, at a protest in the city’s Latin Quarter against proposed university reforms. “I had no idea then that they were talking of my brother,” Oussekine told me when we met in early October. “He was at a jazz club, not the protest.”

Sarah’s brother, Malik, was twenty-two years old. As it later transpired, he had left a club shortly after midnight, and been chased and beaten unconscious by two motorcycle-mounted officers from a unit sent in to break up the demonstration. An ambulance eventually took him to a hospital, where he died within a few hours. Outrage followed: 400,000 people attended Malik’s funeral, protests against the killing shook all of France, motorbike police squads were disbanded and the proposed reforms binned.

Malik Oussekine is widely remembered in France today as a symbol of state violence against the country’s minorities. Though the exact circumstances of his death are still disputed, it is highly probable that his ethnicity played a part in the assault. Then, as now, racial profiling by the police is frequent, as is the use of disproportionate force. Yet, in much of the media and the public mind, blame is shifted away from the police and onto the victims of such practices—minorities, who are often considered predisposed to crime and violence, and seen as threats to mainstream French society.

This is particularly acute in the case of French Muslims—whether adherents of Islam or simply citizens of Muslim parentage—who many in the country see as practitioners of a regressive culture at best, and closeted extremists at worst. France’s Internal Ministry estimates the community’s population at between five and six million, though others place the number at least twice as high (French law forbids census counts by religion). France’s immigrant-origin citizens, the majority of them Muslims with roots in Africa, are marginalised; a 2013 study by the Labour Ministry found that 22 percent of African-origin citizens were unemployed, compared to only 8.8 percent of the total population. Many French people hold integration up as a solution to this marginalisation, while accusing immigrants of lacking either the will or the ability to adopt conventional, secular societal values. But that belief ignores the complex realities and identities of many French Muslims, whose stories suggest that France’s heated national debate on integration is distracting from questions of discrimination.

“Most know my brother Malik as the son of Muslim immigrants, but few know that he was training to become a Catholic priest,” Oussekine told me when we met in October in Saint-Denis, a Parisian suburb. We were at her office, a small apartment from which she runs Voix d’Elles Rebelles—Voices of Rebels—a feminist group that assists women of immigrant origin facing sexism, violence or racism. She said the policemen who attacked Malik got away with no more than suspended prison sentences—for a term of five years for one, and of two for the other. “Now I channel all my anger into positive action,” she said.

Oussekines’s Algerian father and grandfather fought for France in the First and Second World War respectively. This was before a bloody war led to their country’s independence from France in 1962. Her father was among the many from former French colonies in north and sub-Saharan Africa who settled in France as construction workers during a thirty–year economic boom that lasted until 1975. These immigrants were segregated into hastily built suburbs, or banlieues, most of which came to be, and remain, dominated by poor minority communities. France’s colonial hangover generates hostility towards its citizens of immigrant origin, and this has been further reinforced by an increasing confluence of patriotism and Islamophobia.

Many second-generation immigrants adopted new names to improve their prospects of getting jobs and renting housing. Oussekine, who is now fifty-five, started using her current name when she was eighteen, in place of her given name, Nassera, which she was told sounded “too Arab.” The change still rankles. “I am French,” she said, “but why should I have to sever myself from my personal history to aspire to some pre-fixed notion of French-ness? I’m not a practicing Muslim, but should that even matter? In France, integration means forced assimilation.”

A few weeks later, I met Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, a feminist sociologist of Algerian origin, at a restaurant near her Paris home.Guénif-Souilamas is a co-author of the book Les féministes et le garçon arabe—Feminists and the Arab Boy—which argues that the French Muslim man is construed in the national imagination as “triply foreign” to modernity: foreign to the republican ideal of rational secularism, to French ethnicity, and to egalitarian feminism. Over lunch, she told me that in arguing for universal emancipation and trying to “do what’s good for Muslim girls and women,” white French feminists propagate notions of a uniform modernity similar to those once used to justify colonial subjugation. Guénif-Souilamas said that dynamic still exists in France today—that by presenting Muslims as emblems of regression and public disorder, the state legitimises an inordinate preoccupation with security.

According to Guénif-Souilamas, Muslim women are commonly seen as passive victims of backward cultural practices, with no agency of their own. As a result, the matter of their dress has become hugely politicised. In 2004, the government banned hijabs, or headscarves, which are worn by only a small minority of Muslim women and girls, from all public schools. Then, in 2011, it banned the niqab, or full-face veil, worn at the time by no more than a few hundred in France, from all public places. Guénif-Souilamas said that middle-class white feminists focus excessively on valorising a kind of femininity promoted by glossy lifestyle magazines, taking it as a basic women’s right that everyone ought naturally to aspire to. What many fail to understand, she added, is that for some women wearing the scarf or veil is a radical method of “repoliticising feminism, or of reaffirming their postcolonial identities.”

I spoke with one of them on a warm evening in late September, at a trendy café by Paris’s Canal Saint-Martin. Two weeks earlier, I had spotted a young woman in the metro wearing a brown hijab and carrying a matching leather bag, typing furiously into a smart phone. I asked if we could meet. She agreed, on the condition that I not reveal her name.

“Wearing the headscarf earns me respect and brings me peace,” the nineteen-year-old told me. She insisted that her parents, affluent Moroccan immigrants, allowed her complete freedom, and nobody forced her to dress as she did. “I have to save my body for my future husband,” she explained. She refused to eat or drink anything, and had insisted on meeting away from her own neighbourhood, a banlieue north of Paris. The summer holidays had just ended, and I noticed that, like many of the other people around us, she had a tan. She told me she had gotten it in Morocco, at a women-only pool that allowed her to sunbathe in a bikini away from men’s eyes. She said she found that “cool.”

The young woman is studying engineering at one of France’s top universities—not to become an engineer, she told me, but to “serve as an educated mother and wife.” It angered her that her mother never wears a hijab because, she said, her mother is ashamed of her own roots, and overly eager to conform to French ideals of integration. She said neither of her parents is strictly religious, though they do observe Ramadan. She began praying when she was sixteen, and started wearing the hijab at seventeen. She told me she gets all her religious teaching from “wise men” on the internet.

Stories such as these have been setting off alarm bells in France recently. My interviewee fit the profile of the roughly six dozen young women known to have left France to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Nearly all reported cases have involved children of non-religious parents, who were indoctrinated online. These recruits have surprised many who initially assumed their extremist drift was connected to religious orthodoxy among French Muslims. The young woman told me she detests the media “because they only tell lies.” As we walked towards a metro station, chatting about Bollywood films, I asked what it meant for her to be French. “I love cheese,” she said, laughing.

Humour sometimes helps diffuse the tensions surrounding Muslims’ place in French society. Some of the country’s funniest and best-known stand-up comedians are of immigrant origin. One of them, Sophia Aram, was born to Moroccan migrants, and spent her first twenty years in the banlieue of Trappes, west of Paris. We met at a bistro near her home in Paris, in mid October. Aram has no qualms about being an unwed mother and an atheist, even though her father is a devout Muslim “whose religion has never come in the way of French values.” She co-hosts a live radio show, where she recently joked about the young women who “met god on Facebook last week” and set out to wage jihad.

On the show, Aram often pokes fun at people invited onto a preceding news programme, while sitting right across from them. In March 2011, she launched into Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party and daughter of the party’s infamously racist founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Speaking about Marine’s autobiography, released in 2006, Aram laced her monologue with rich irony. “When I read your book, I realised you were insulted, mocked, rejected all your life because of your name,” she said, drawing a parallel to Muslims facing discrimination because of theirs. Then she turned the rhetoric of integration on one of its most high-profile practitioners. “When I told your story to my aunty Fatiha, she started crying,” Aram said, before switching to a heavily Arabic-accented voice and deliberately distorting Marine’s name. “‘Ah la la! Poor Marylene Li Pen. Everyone rejected her. That’s why she joined the National Front ... Marylene Li Pen has a problem of integration. She should try harder to understand French values. In our country, we can liberate ourselves from the imperiousness of our fathers.’”

Keywords: integration Muslims France state violence racial profiling