Daring to be a visibly Muslim woman in France

Daring to be a visibly Muslim woman in France
Comment: Pougetoux represents so-far elusive popular alliance that could transform politics in France for the better, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
31 May, 2018
Maryam Pougetoux is head of the Paris-Sorbonne's Faculty of Letters student union [AFP]
Over the last week, the president elect of the Sorbonne branch of the national students' union (Unef), Maryam Pougetoux, found herself at the centre of a violently Islamophobic public media storm. Her crime? Daring to hold the position as a visibly Muslim woman.

It is often suggested that racism and Islamophobia in France are considerably more mainstream, overt and aggressive than what we are used to seeing in the UK, so while her witch-hunt was horrific, it was also to be expected from a state seemingly hellbent on targeting People of Colour, migrants and Muslims.

Nevertheless, extent of the racist backlash levelled at Pougetoux shocked many, as French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, called her her hijab a "provocation" and suggested she was similar to "youth that are attracted to the Islamic State" on national television.

If that wasn't enough to fuel the fire, French Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa - in glaring contradiction with her title -stated that Pougetoux's appointment to the post promoted political Islam.

Following this, a Charlie Hebdo cover with a racist caricature of Maryam topped it all as it depicted her in a monkey-like fashion, and mocked all those who had elected her.

I found the news incredibly distressing. This wasn't just because of this public vilification must have made her feel, but also because, having had a somewhat similar experience as the first Muslim president of the UK's National Union of Students (NUS) - although not quite given that I don't wear the hijab - I had hoped that my distressing experiences would never have to be repeated.

In reality, in this context, it is Pougetoux's politics that poses a real threat to the status quo in France

I had hoped that future Muslim representatives and those from other oppressed groups, would not be dehumanised in such a normalised fashion, face the countless death threats and social media abuse, or feel unsure of what might happen at any point, while simply walking on the street.

What was strikingly different about Maryam's story however, to both my own experience, and previous Islamophobic witch hunts in France, was the support extended to her by her national union, l'Unef.

While I dealt with mounting hate upon my election, my own union was at best silent, and at other times complicit in the attacks. Pougetoux was of course inspiringly defiant in her response to the ministers' comments and wider opposition, but l'Unef calling out the whole affair for being "racist, sexist, and Islamophobic" was also significant.

When you consider that a founding member of the student union, French and politician, Julien Dray openly expressed his discontent for Pougetoux in the role, stating that "the union leadership that approves this young woman as a leader defiles all the struggles we led in the universities", l'Unef's support shows a shift in the right direction.

This is particularly significant in the French context where the Left has a long history of campaigning in favour of Islamophobic laws. It is worth remembering for example that it was socialist activists who kicked out the first hijabi girls from a school in France, and that when France's New Anti-Capitalist Party elected a hijabi as a candidate for local elections, significant sections of her own party campaigned for her exclusion.

Over the years, I have been invited to speak at Unef conferences in France about broadening efforts to fight oppression and organise against racism and xenophobia in particular.

The union introduced a representative for Black students and was clearly addressing what was visibly a lack of diversity in its engagement and leadership. Following a national gathering that took place in 2015, I discussed the various tactics used to self-organise People of Colour against racism both structurally, and out on the streets.

After my speech, what felt like every PoC in the room, came over to share their horrific experiences of racism on their campuses and within wider French society. But their stories were accompanied with rage and a desire to take action, drawing on lessons of resistance abroad.

The obsession surrounding her outward appearance is unquestionably sexist and racist

Students of colour, international students and Muslims within the French student movement have had their work cut out for them, and the experiences of Pougetoux are sadly far from the exception. The response of unwavering solidarity from the Unef leadership, in the student movement and on national media platforms, is therefore another sign of the effective anti-racist and progressive focus of the union in recent years.

However, in France, as is the case across Europe today, l'Unef is swimming against the grain. As mentioned above, so-called progressive voices are joining in with government officials' denunciations, while the Islamophobic climate is reaching fever pitch.

Read more: 'Hero' migrant who saved child to get French citizenship: Macron

Emmanuel Macron is increasingly attempting to dictate to French Muslims what an 'acceptable Islam' looks like in the Republic. Meanwhile, 300 French politicians, faith leaders, and public figures - including former president Nicolas Sarkozy - signed a statement calling on the Quran to have the Suras (chapters) that they considered violent or intolerant, edited out.

At the same time, Muslims continue to face discrimination in the job market, violence on the street and at the hands of the state, as well as entirely normalised dehumanisation in the media, as demonstrated by the Charlie Hebdo cover.

In France to be a good Muslim, one either needs to be prepared to join the public condemnation of their own faith, or accomplish super-human feats by saving babies falling from balconies.

She represents the spectre of an alliance between the militant trade unionists and the hundreds of thousands of People of Colour

In reality, in this context, it is Pougetoux's politics, that poses a real threat to the status quo in France. The obsession surrounding her outward appearance is unquestionably sexist and racist, but also attempts to veil (excuse the pun) the deeper layers of frustration and hatred towards her and what she represents.

That a left wing Muslim woman is able to mobilise and articulate the issues faced by young people far more than the ministers responsible for running the country, that she is even considered a comrade, student leader, and an integral campaigner equal to the so-called great socialists like Dray - while also being Muslim- disrupts the status quo and dismantles the hierarchies that the privileged political elite rely on to maintain power.

Indeed, Pougetoux represents in many ways the so-far elusive popular alliance that could transform politics in France for the better, between a well rooted and militant Left, both politically and in the trade union movement, and the vast, largely Muslim, racialised working classes that find themselves outside political representation, even on the Left.

She represents the spectre of an alliance between the militant trade unionists currently shutting down France against regressive neoliberal reform, and the hundreds of thousands of People of Colour who continue to be stuck in ghettos around the Republic's cities.

So far, it is the deep racism, and specifically Islamophobia, of important sections of the French Left that have made this alliance impossible.

Pougetoux and Unef are today pointing to a possibly different story emerging from the struggles of students and the youth.

That different story might very well announce the end of an era of reaction in France, but only time, and the struggles of millions of working class Muslims, migrants, African, Arab, and white workers and students, will tell.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.