From #PretoriaGirlsHigh to #BurkiniBan, women’s bodies are still a colonial battlefield

2016-09-01 06:41

From Pretoria to Paris, women’s bodies are still a colonial battlefield, writes Suraya Dadoo

In October 1989, three French Muslim schoolgirls were expelled from school for wearing headscarves. The principal and teachers interpreted their refusal to remove the scarves as an attack on laïcité (secularism) in public schools. By 2004, the headscarf was banned in all French public schools. Full-face veils were outlawed in 2011. In 2016, the “burkini” - a full-body swimsuit that allows many Muslim women to swim with the majority of their skin covered – was declared illegal.

A Muslim woman is forced to remove some of her clothes by armed police officers at a beach in Nice last week

We were still absorbing images of Muslim women being coerced out of their swimwear by armed police on French beaches, when reports emerged of a black student at Pretoria Girls High School (PGHS) not being allowed to write her exam, another forced to serve detention, others verbally abused and humiliated – because they wore their hair as God intended.

A continent away, and linguistically different , but France’s burkini ban and the PGHS hair policy spring from the same colonial well. The French fixation with unveiling Muslim women originates from French colonialism in North Africa, particularly Algeria in the late 1950’s. Frantz Fanon’s 1959 essay Algeria Unveiled reveals how French colonisers believed that unveiling Algerian women would destroy Algerian resistance to French colonialism.

A poster distributed in French-colonised Algeria in 1958 shows three women wearing the veil, covering their faces. The last - and most prominent - beams with an uncovered face. “Aren’t you pretty then?” the poster asks. It then says: "Unveil yourselves!" urging them to be like the women in the ruling country.

The French army forced these Algerian women to be photographed without their veils. The women were so humiliated about revealing their face and hair to anyone outside their family, that the photographer said they stood before him “as if they were naked.” For centuries, black girls have grown up believing that their hair, in its natural state, is something that needs to be fixed. The Afro was seen as “uncivilised”, initially by white slave masters, and later colonisers. It needed to be transformed into straight hair - an attribute of  white women -  in order for it to be accepted and considered beautiful.

What we’ve seen in the last week is that from Pretoria to Paris, women’s bodies are still being policed according to the rules of white colonialism and respectability, under the guise of multiculturalism.
Writing this week about the PGHS code of conduct, social commentator, Khaya Dlanga, argued that multiculturalism is a myth in Model C schools. These schools are seen to be the archetype of South Africa’s rainbow nation: students of all races and cultures, learning together in harmony. “What schools mean by multiculturalism is assimilation and domination of all other cultures by one to form a monoculture,” explained Dlanga.
For black women, that means we’ll accept your body, but only if it fits our norms of acceptability. Muslim women in France will be accepted, but only if their clothes fit white feminist specifications of suitability.
Scarf-wearing Muslim women weren’t even invited to meetings of France’s established feminist groups. Muslim women are not regarded as women in that feminism. With that strip of cloth on their heads, they surely couldn’t be feminists, could they? Most French feminists saw no problem with the 2004 headscarf ban in public schools, that excluded scarf-wearing Muslim girls from schools – thus violating their right to education. French women’s rights groups were silent on a 2011 banning of the face veil in public, thus denying those Muslim women who choose to cover themselves access to public spaces. Over the last decade, hundreds of Muslim women have been fired from their jobs because they wear a scarf.  Throughout it all, mainstream French feminists gave their tacit approval of the French government’s actions.
Yet these same feminists have devoted inordinate amounts of time and energy deconstructing and denouncing the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Is it oppression only when brown men tell women how to dress? Why is it called “liberation” when white men in a liberal western democracy police women? Is the morality police of Paris or Cannes more moral than those in Jeddah or Tehran?

We’re tired of having colonial feminism imposed on us; telling us that our hair is not straight enough, our skins not fair enough, our clothing not revealing enough. We will choose how to wear our hair, and whether we want to cover it. We don’t need anyone to save us from our hijab or our hair.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher for Media Review Network, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo

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