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So the French are talking about their enduring obsession, Muslim women and their clothing, again. I am a little late to the ball game on this one, but between a needed vacation and Handshake Gate in Switzerland, I had to walk away from the hate to keep my own sanity.
Laurence Rossignol, the French Minister for Women’s Rights (grim times, my fellow women) has an issue, according to France 24, with clothing companies who make clothing lines for Muslim women. In an interview a few weeks ago, she called the companies “irresponsible” and accused them of “promoting the confinement of women’s bodies.” When the France 24 interviewer (rightfully) pointed out that a lot of Muslim women, you know, choose to dress this way, Rossignol said (direct translation from France 24) “Of course there are women who choose it. There were American negroes who were in favour of slavery.” Let that sink in a bit.
Time Magazine later reported that Rossignol apologized for her word choice but not her stance. Of course she wouldn’t apologize for her stance; it wouldn’t be French to actually have a nuanced and non-bigoted opinion about Muslim women and their clothing. She reiterated her stance on Canal+ last week, offering up some weird explanation about how “once women had the right to contraception or even a bank account, their skirts got shorter…so I want to tell brands: be careful. When you promote clothing that covers from head to toe, we have a signal that is not a good one for women’s rights and equality.”
Yes, Laurence Rossignol, there is a link between clothing and women’s rights. But you, and the people who think like you, are on the wrong side of the table and the wrong side of history. When you deny women their free will at best, and at worst, compare them to slaves or otherwise denigrate their choices, you are NOT on the side of women. The thing I am struggling with here is: how bad can it get? Rossignol has people like Prime Minister Manuel Valls defending her, then another Muslim-basher-who-calls-it-feminism Elisabeth Badinter (the one famous for saying “you shouldn’t be afraid to be called an Islamophobe”- because being anti-Muslim is ok) sounded off with her support in Le Monde, saying that while Rossignol’s word choice was “unfortunate,” she was completely correct in substance and that women should boycott brands who choose to sell Islamic fashion. In the same article in Le Monde, Badinter mentions yet again that it is ok to be called an Islamophobe. (Just in case you really, really weren’t sure that being a bigot was ok in her book – it is.) Go forth, bigots, be Islamophobic, do whatever you want! A famous feminist says it is ok!
Procrastination on this topic allowed my faith in humanity to be restored with Monday’s post from the Bondy Blog, which was an interview by three of their journalists and Ms. Rossignol herself. The Bondy Blog interview was, in a word, a takedown, and very delicately explained the dual issue at hand: Ms. Rossignol’s words, context or no context, were not just hurtful to Muslim women but also racist – mainly racist. The article also exposed Ms. Rossignol as being very smug: when asked if, 35 000 people asking for her to step down bothered her, she said, “[not] in a country of 60 million….” When asked if she realized that some women could be offended by being called “aliénées” (a word not far off from “slave,” for that matter…usually translated as “crazy”), she backpedaled hard to finally say (rough summary translation) “but I wasn’t talking about veils, the other person (Bourdin) was talking about veils…we were talking about the brands who are launching Islamic fashion…hijab and abaya, I wasn’t talking about women who cover their hair.” To which the journalists replied, “Hijab is covering hair, it is the same thing.” Then Ms. Rossignol, still backpedaling hard and mixing things up, went of on something about Islamic militants. It was both a fascinating and troubling read. If you read French, or are even proficient in Google Translate, I cannot recommend the Bondy Blog article enough, it is a masterpiece of journalism and mainstream journalists should take note of how things SHOULD be done.
I am really tired of my body and my clothing being a battlefield. Badinter and Rossignol are right about one thing (broken clocks are right twice a day, too): clothing is a feminist issue. But what they don’t realize is that knife cuts both ways. Personally, I have my own issues with “Islamic fashion,” which is not really the scope of this article (short version: why is it always about our clothes, our weight, our appearances in general); my point is, there is room for discussion in terms of why or why not a Muslim fashion show/line is a good thing. However, the room for that discussion stops when you deny Muslim women their agency by calling them slaves. Ms. Rossignol’s commentary is just another example of how anything goes in the French public discourse when it comes to disparaging Muslims. A few weeks have passed and I am still just as mad that people are allowed to say racist and bigoted things and and get defended for doing so, at the highest levels of journalism (anyone except the Bondy Blog), politics (Valls) and intelligentsia (Badinter).