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Racism, Pure and Simple

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affiche_d_voil_ge_bureau_psych_arm_e_francaiseFour armed police officers approached a Muslim woman on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice yesterday and demanded she remove some of her clothes. According to some news reports she was wearing a ‘burkini’, but she was in fact dressed in leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. As newspapers published photographs of the incident, L’Obs ran an interview with another woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Siam. She was asked to remove her headscarf on the beach at Cannes last week. She refused. Some fellow beachgoers took her side, but others shouted ‘go home’. She is a former flight attendant from Toulouse, whose family has been in France for three generations. She said that she had felt humiliated in front of her daughter and family, and described the incident as ‘racism, pure and simple’.

All of this is taking place in the context of highly publicised official anxiety in France over Muslim women wearing religious dress, with recent focus on the ‘burkini’. But the French fixation with the way Muslim women dress has a long history. A poster (above) distributed in Algeria in 1958 shows four women. The first three wear the haik, covering their faces; the last, and most prominent, beams at the viewer with an uncovered face and wide eyes. ‘Aren’t you pretty then?’ the poster demands. ‘Unveil yourselves!’ The colonial authorities organised public spectacles of Algerian women ceremonially burning their headscarves.

Frantz Fanon’s essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’ was written the following year. For Fanon, the French colonisers – supported by sociologists and anthropologists – had given Algerian women ‘primordial importance’ in their attempts to subjugate the country. It was through women, the occupiers thought, that the structure of Algerian society and its capacity for resistance could be destroyed. Attempts to unveil an Algerian woman carried for the coloniser ‘the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession’ – and, through her, the country as whole. Meanwhile, Fanon argued, for many Algerians the veil had come to represent ‘the assertion of a distinct identity’ and ‘concern with keeping intact a few shreds of national existence’.

Between 1957 and 1960, two million people were transferred from their villages in the mountains to internment camps. They were photographed and given identity cards; the women were made to remove their veils. The pictures show them staring into the camera. The photographer, Marc Garanger, a conscript who later spoke out against the war, said that ‘the women had no choice in the matter. Their only way of protesting was through their look.’

Yasser Louati, a French civil liberties activist, told me that Nice has a large population of pieds noirs, former settlers in Algeria who were forced to return to France. ‘Racism is completely normal in Nice,’ he said. During colonial times, Louati told me, ‘there was a fantasy that the Muslim woman was waiting for her white saviour to protect her and deliver her, to give her freedom. And now there is this irrational focus on the Muslim headscarf. We saw that in the colonial past. It’s not about freeing her, it’s about undressing her – because that’s a form of domination.’

I spoke to Latifa Akay, who works for the British Muslim charity Maslaha. ‘What I want to know is: where are the white feminists, in France and beyond, who are normally so militant about bodily autonomy?’ she said. ‘I’ve seen the burkini open up the beach as a space for women who’d previously felt excluded from it. To see it being shut down like this is sickening.’

I asked Louati if he expects protests from other sections of French society, given the international outcry over the incident in Nice. ‘If there is no solidarity now, there will never be solidarity,’ Louati said. ‘This is the time for people to flock onto the beaches wearing burkinis, long sleeves and headscarves.’


  1. Abrar says:

    Here’s the thing. You are in an odd situation where you are supporting one type of subjugation over another. You have ignored (because it will not support your thesis) that the veil or the “burkini” are just as oppressive a form of control as the unveiling. W

    • Abrar says:

      Previous comment sent too soon accidently. Its my furst post so jumped the gun a bit. Will add to it when i have more time

    • Alan Benfield says:

      I fail to see what this has to do with the issue. At what point does it become legitimate for the state to regulate what we wish to wear?

      • Abrar says:

        Yes france should rescue them. The west has an obligation always to rescue the naive still developing third worlder.

        And it becomes legitimate to dictate the clothes you wear when its your country and you’ve had the good grace to allow an outsider to live in that country (because of past exploitation or guilt or a means of reparation) and you are rewarded with people who refuse to integrate and speak their own language, retain their own culture and live in their own little ghetto/ community ready to denounce the host culture – biting the hand that feeds – at any opportunity.

        • Alan Benfield says:

          “The west has an obligation always to rescue the naive still developing third worlder.”

          You naïve, arrogant arse…

        • manchegauche says:

          “naive still developing third worlder”?? One of the women in question was a flight attendant from Toulouse and who is as French as a baguette in a stripey top, wearing a beret and riding a bike down the Champs d’Elysée whilst whistling the Marseillaises. I am a British immigrant in France, who can (to my shame) barely string a grammatical sentence together in the native lingo, openly mocks French politicians on social media, has no papers and wears a knotted hankerchief on my head, together with a communist sweatshirt and leggings on the beach because I hate the sun so much. That will be a function of my pale and pasty complexion and also the reason the local gendarme pay me no attention what so ever.

          The whole Burkini farce is by and large a whipped up pseudo moral panic with one main aim; to get Sarkozy’s ugly gueule in the papers again where he can froth and fume (like you Abrar you deluded gull) and get his sad Presidential bid going. Do pay a bit more attention and keep you laughable opinions to yourself or the Daily Mail comment columns where they surely belong.

  2. Greencoat says:

    No, nothing on earth can ever be as pure and simple as ‘racism’.

    Except, perhaps, the French children murdered on Bastille Day.

    • Alan Benfield says:

      By a woman wearing a Burkini, presumably…

      • Greencoat says:

        No, by a Muslim man – another keen devotee of the ‘burkini’.

        • randalstella says:

          A Muslim woman who decides to wear a ‘burkini’ on the beach is supporting mass murder? Have your skull examined.
          It’s sensible wear in the heat and the sun anyway. Are they going to arrest non-Muslim women who cover up on the beach? It is dysfunctional madness.
          How about it, you beach-loving nuns?

          • “…beach-loving nuns”. Good point. Have the French authorities ever asked nuns to remove their head-to-toe religious clothing? Given the current French laws about religious clothing and ornaments, where do nuns stand? Does anyone complain about them?

        • name says:

          Islamists and French conservatives both hate the “burkini” with equal ferocity. You are just keen to put all muslims in one category so you can hate them more efficiently.

          • Abrar says:

            They hate it for different reasons.

            Muslims do fit into one category despite all the various factions within it – they all have similar loathing for the west and its ways. They all want to convert the planet to be the “one true religion”. Good luck with supporting that

        • mototom says:

          You’re right, but you don’t go nearly far enough. Why stop at the burkini. They should outlaw beards too. And mosques of course. And while they’re at it maybe they could round up and ship out all North African looking folk to Madagasgar..or better still they could build work camps with factories……

      • Abrar says:

        You really are a very tolerant and understanding person. No not by someone in a burkini.

        You have to allow people to vent their hate for a belief system that subjugates and maltreats women. The west has tolerated it for decades. Even makes concessions at the cost of its own culture. And its rewarded in turn by non conformity and loathing for the host culture.

    • delacour says:

      Ask the women whom are travelling towards Saudi-Arabia. They might help you on answering your question.

  3. suetonius says:

    Alan Benfield is right, it’s oppressive for the state to tell anyone what to wear, or not to wear. Whatever state it is, France, Saudi Arabia. The covering up of Muslim women is oppressive, I think that is clear. The solution is not for France to tell women they can’t wear something, it’s for education to make women realize they can do what they wish to do. Orthodox Jewish women have strict rules about what they can wear and how they can behave, why isn’t France rescuing them? What France can do is tell men they are not allowed to force women to do anything.

    • Abrar says:

      So onus is on france to re educate the savage to change his backward ways? Still the colonialists eh

    • Abrar says:

      Lets try this social experiment.

      Go for a holiday to an arab country. Take a female with you and get her to dress in a bikini on the beach. See what happens.

      Once she is out on bail after intervention from your Embassy, get her to wear a skirt, get her to go out unaccompanied after 7pm, drive a car and other “male” oriented things that you take for granted here.

      You see? When in Rome…

      They want to have their cake and eat it. That should be a cliche/ slogan you and all the other liberals would be advised to consider when you spout your well meaning nonsense on forums.

      You feign humility but actually are still ever the  educators. You want to enlighten the heathen, turn the other cheek, show them the correct “civilised” mode of behaviour despite knowing you are hated, in the final analysis, by them.

      • suetonius says:


        I’m not a liberal. It’s not the religion. It’s oppressive. So is orthodox Judaism, and Roman Catholicism, about various things. The fact that it’s the way of life in some countries does not excuse it, just like slavery was not excused because it was the way of life in the American South. Cultural relativism is wrong, plain and simple. Some things are wrong, period. The fact that women can’t wear bikini’s in Arab countries is just as wrong as the fact that women can’t wear burkinis in France. Oppression of women is wrong, period.

        • Abrar says:

          Point taken.

          My point is this. Why does the West feel it should control the narrative? Let the saudis, let islamists make the first move to tolerance. Let them make some move towards freeing up the oppression of women.

          The west has this quiet smugness this notion that they should export their wonderful humanist philosophy they’ve honed and arrived at after decades of exploitation and slaughter.they feel they know best and they want to be seen to be doing the “right thing”.

          In the past it was christianity they tried to foist onto the natives, cruel to be kind they were doing it in gods name. now they re package it as humanism and let the native come to them (only to enslave them again for the good of globalisation and cheap labour).

          In short, dont try to make the world a better place as envisaged by you. Dont interfere. And most importantly don’t sublimate your hate. They hate you. Hate them back. The world will be the better for it.

          • suetonius says:

            Sorry, won’t hate. Will try to make the world a better place. Which sometimes means getting involved. I don’t actually think any Western government has any moral authority at all, we’ve been responsible for all sorts of horror. But I’m not arguing for the government to do anything. I just think burhkas represent oppression of women, people should be allowed to wear what they want, and women should be taught that they are free, wherever they live and whatever the men around them think. Interference is necessary sometimes. It was in the US in the 1860’s, and it was in Europe in the 1940’s. We could argue, probably for hours, about who might be qualified to interfere.

      • Alan Benfield says:

        No, no, no, no, no, no.

        You do not educate the Saudis by copying their intolerance. Banning bikinis is silly. Banning Burkinis is equally so. What exactly is the problem here? What are you trying to say?

        In what way are we promoting the emancipation of women in countries where women are required by custom, sometimes by law, to dress ‘modestly’ by forcing women in our countries who wish to dress ‘modestly’, for whatever reason, not to?.

        Can you not see how ridiculous this is?

    • Alan Benfield says:

      Thank you, suetonius.

      Just because some people consider that the wearing of the burkini is ‘oppressive’ to the women who do so does not mean that it is so. As some people have pointed out (women!, by the way), the wearers of such clothes probably consider them liberating.

      What people wear according to custom or habit should not be regulated by law.

      • Abrar says:

        Clothes dont make the man. But they do make the woman sometimes. Just because they want to wear the burka doesnt take away what its a symbol of. Its a male idea to take away the individual females identity by dressing her in a uniform homogenised way. If you indoctrinate someone from birth to believe its the way to dress, they will believe it and argue in its defence. Doesn’t mean they are not oppressed. Just that they dont know better.

        If the “enlightened” western female dresses in a burka its an informed decision. Doesnt happen very often though.but then why would you negate your self identity by wearing something that makes you anonymous?

  4. Graucho says:

    Hate to be pedantic, but the issue here is religion not race. This is sectarianism pure and simple. It would of course be marvelous if certain muslim countries put us to shame by showing tolerance for bikinis, kissing or even holding hands etc. on their beaches. Anyway here we go with more gesture politics and a storm dans une tasse de cafee.

  5. artemesia says:

    I do not believe that defending the burka, and its variants, is a defense of freedom. Doing so condones a culture that is deeply oppressive to women. Veiling is emblematic of gender apartheid. It is imposed by and reinforced by an ideology that insists that the female body is inherently sexual and a provocation to men to lose control over their sexual impulse. It was widely reported in Australia when Sheik Din al Hilali commented as follows after the rape of four young girls: “if you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street … Without a cover, and cats come and eat it, whose fault is that? The cat’s or the uncovered meat?”

    The culture and ideology such a comment comes from also condones flogging, imprisoning women for failure to cover up. See Sudan, See Saudi Arabia, See Iran. Recall some years back when schoolgirls burned to death because their escape was denied because they were unveiled. The Burkini cannot be severed from the culture from which it comes. Instead of getting all hot and heavy about the banning of the burka and its variants, surely we should be strenuously finding ways to support women in those cultures who fight the horrible oppression and gender apartheid under which they live. Surely, at the very least we should not normalize the emblems of this apartheid in our society.

  6. suetonius says:


    Agree, but the question is what to do? I don’t think banning the burka is productive, or right for that matter. Being clear that oppression of women is unacceptable is a beginning. Might help if Western countries didn’t support the government in Saudi Arabia, ha ha.

  7. Graucho says:

    Can’t help reflecting that when oil was heading for $200 a barrel we were all very deferential about the excesses of Islam. Now that fracking and shale have put an effective $50 cap on the price we feel much freer to say what we think, as long as anonymity protects us from homicide of course.

  8. Graucho says:

    By the way, no one talks about the sexual repression of men in Islam, which I venture to hypothesise is related to the ready pool of testosterone fuelled young males eager to be suicide bombers and terrorists.

  9. John Perry says:

    I find the French incidents extraordinary and lamentable. In Latin America, where I live, away from tourist beaches it is common to see fully dressed women (and men for that matter, often complete with baseball caps) enjoying the sea. There is a long-established if declining tradition of modesty. Poverty also limits the numbers who can afford bathing costumes. Until relatively recently bikinis (and even shorts for men) were frowned upon in many places. No doubt customs are changing over time, as they are in the Middle East, and indeed in France. But the idea that such a decline should be enforced by the law, rather than left to local custom and personal preference, is ridiculous and (in this case, because of its selective nature) openly racist.

    • Greencoat says:

      So people wade fully clothed into the sea because they can’t afford bathing costumes?

      As my grandmother used to say, that would make a cat laugh.

      • Alan Benfield says:

        As a child in London in the 1960’s (not so long ago) I went to primary school with children who had to borrow swimming costumes and towels when we went on school trips to the local baths because their families couldn’t afford much. They often smelt a bit because they wore the same clothes all week. Their clothes were often grubby and frayed and much-repaired.

        Don’t sneer at poverty. It may not happen in your world, but for some it’s a reality.

        • streetsj says:

          I’m sure Greencoat needs no help defending himself but I’m sure his point is not sneering at poverty but having his gast flabbered by the solution chosen to the problem of not being able to afford a bathing costume.

          • Alan Benfield says:

            It’s nice of you to defend him, but I have to disagree: I think his point was exactly sneering at the idea that some people find it hard to afford a bathing costume. If that’s not sneering at poverty, you will have to explain to me why.

      • John Perry says:

        What’s funny about people not being able to afford swimming costumes? If you earned only a few dollars a day, and your visits to the beach were confined to the occasional bus trip organised by your church or your political party every few years, maybe you wouldn’t invest in a pair of trunks either. The point is that what is the ‘norm’ in France may well not be the norm in many other countries, and going into the sea more or less fully dressed is much more common than might appear to be the case.

  10. Graucho says:

    A slightly more extreme example, but when the British banned suttee and thuggee in India, were they not imposing Western cultural norms on non westerners and not even in their own country. Chinese foot binding and FGM are other examples one could cite. Any views on where to draw the line ?

    • Alan Benfield says:

      A rather false comparison, in that wearing clothes does not normally involve causing death or mutilation to an innocent third party.

      That seems to be a sensible line to draw.

      • artemesia says:

        Coercion nullifies free will. This is a well recognized concept. So is emotional abuse. Neither involve the physical. So that is not the line nor the issue.

  11. Greencoat says:

    Leftists will ferociously defend a muslim’s right to wear the burqa and its variants (or, more accurately, the ‘right’ of muslim men to enforce the wearing of such garments) – but they will not murmur a word to defend the raped and abused victims of Rotherham and Cologne.

    No wonder the Labour Party is a daily laughing stock.

    • rae donaldson says:

      Greencoat may get more of a response to his trolling on the Guardian website.
      One question: why is being able to see the whole of a person’s face the main defining aspect of their individuality?

  12. Graucho says:

    The argument advanced in France for banning the hijab in schools is that zealous muslims would coerce any woman not wearing one. Given that we are talking about a culture where honour killings and fatwas take place something a little more serious than peer pressure is involved here and the line of argument has some merit. Whatever criticisms may be directed at the French, I suspect that the underlying attitude is “They don’t respect our ways, why should we respect theirs ?”

    The Islamic fundamentalist genie escaped from the bottle when Jimmy Carter failed to make the Iranians sorry that they even thought about invading the U.S. embassy and was compounded by Reagan’s criminal Iran contra deal. The U.K.’s lame response to the Salman Rushdie affair hardly helped. So here we are making impotent gestures.

    • Greencoat says:

      No, it is not an impotent gesture – it is (we hope) a small but significant sign that Christian Civilisation is at last beginning to defend itself.

      • cybernaut62 says:

        It’s an absolutely bone-headed and impotent gesture choosing a fight over an irrelevance. If what you want to do is stop Islamist oppression of women, this is a truly bizarre way to go about it. It says more about a certain French inability to tolerate difference. It’s a fight that French society does not need to have, but is going to have anyway….

      • Graucho says:

        What was it Ghandi said about western civilisation – “It would be a good idea”.

      • Graucho says:

        If we want to make non impotent gestures then removing tax payer funding for faith schools of all denominations would be a start.

        • Timothy Rogers says:

          Hmmm . . . presumably this is the Christian civilization, that in its earliest centuries frowned upon Greek and Roman ideas about exposure of the human body in various contexts (gyms, arenas, public statuary, public baths etc.) as exceedingly sinful (see a connecting thread to similar Islamic ideas, Greencoat?). You might even say that this attitude characterized Christian civilization for almost two thousand years – the Renaissance made a dent in it, but only among a small elite who were educated and interested in reviving some of the ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. The civilization that provided us with the hilarious either-or characterization of women as virgins (saints) or whores? Greencoat’s comment leads down another one of his laughable paths lined by ignorance.

    • Graucho says:

      Liberticide is a great word we should adopt it. To paraphrase “It’s about power stupid”. The fundamentalists are a political movement, do have a political agenda and intend to bend us all to their will. So at what point does wearing a black shirt or a brown one stop being a fashion statement and start being a political one ? If you are going to ban forms of dress because they represent an unacceptable face of politics, then you have to go all the way. Nikabs, burkas, veils on or off the beach. Tread on the tail of a snake and it will simply turn around and bite you, which I fear is what the French may have done.

  13. jesleake says:

    What’s this ‘burkini’ name anyway? A burka covers the face. These swimsuits generally don’t. ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang it’ as the proverb runs.

    But beyond this, are wetsuits to be banned from French beaches? Are people with sunlight sensitivity now to banned from wearing their protective swimwear? There’s not any significant difference:


  14. MLS says:

    An alarming number of commenters seem to be under the impression that Arab countries in general have the dress code policies of Saudi Arabia. Seriously? Most Muslims in France come from countries with at least some bikini-friendly beaches – or did you think Western tourists only visit Morocco for the skiing? And even apart from that, does anyone seriously imagine that telling someone to wear more clothes than they’re used to is as bad as telling someone to wear less than what they feel is the minimum?

    It should be unnecessary to add that no country on earth (Muslim or otherwise) bans women from driving cars except Saudi Arabia.

  15. Tench says:

    It’s pointless to ban one form of covering up unless you ban all forms of covering up. In which case the law becomes what? “No women allowed on the beach unless we can see some thigh and cleaveage”? Meanwhile, the men can wear what they like. This doesn’t look like liberation.

  16. michael bosley says:

    Isn’t the critical question that of the legitimacy of government in the eyes of its citizens?

    Governments rule through a mixture of consent and coercion.Citizens accept this rule according to how far they accept that the State reflects and expresses the collective will.

    The central difficulty faced by the French surely lies in that measures such as the birkini ban act as a *symbol* that the State is no longer acting to represent one particular group of its citizenry. It’s a sure-fire way to generate enduring conflict.

    In this context, consensus over what expressions of ethnic or cultural identity are acceptable cannot be held as if it was a debate over abstract principles. Personally, I loathe the misogyny of Islamic edicts over clothing, but this is also true of Christian and other traditions, and it’s not realistic to imagine that, in this atmosphere of fear and mistrust, shouting louder about being in the right will help.

    The way forward is more likely to get the State to engage with those sections of the citizenry who feel that the State does not represent them or their interests. This does not mean making concessions to bigotry and chauvinism (or any side) over contended symbols like birkinis; it means doing something concrete about the basic oppressions that affect the whole of that disaffected constituency – issues like inequalities in employment and poverty.

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