Understanding gendered immigration from Afghanistan to France

A couple weeks ago The New York Times published a compelling and far too brief article titled Afghan Youths Seek a New Life in Europe. The focus is on “Afghan boys” immigrating to France.

Thousands of lone Afghan boys are making their way across Europe, a trend that has accelerated in the past two years as conditions for Afghan refugees become more difficult in countries like Iran and Pakistan. Although some are as young as 12, most are teenagers seeking an education and a future that is not possible in their own country, which is still struggling with poverty and violence eight years after the end of Taliban rule.
The boys pose a challenge for European countries, many of which have sent troops to fight in Afghanistan but whose publics question the rationale for the war. Though each country has an obligation under national and international law to provide for them, the cost of doing so is yet another problem for a continent already grappling with tens of thousands of migrants.

European nations have a much greater obligation than that created by national and international law. The article frames poverty and violence in Afghanistan as existing despite the war. In reality aggression from countries including the U.S. and European nations is productive of increased instability and refugee populations. The article discusses the experiences of “Afghan boys” now living in France but hardly addresses their reasons for leaving home in the first place.
Age and gender are obvious features of the population discussed in this article so it’s strange they are not addressed directly. I am particularly interested in young men immigrating to France as a result of war given the country’s history of gendered immigration.
I want to discuss the history of immigration to France from North Africa as I see a lot of potential parallels and think it will provide context. Knowledge of North African immigration should show how important it is to explore the reasons for young male immigration, why it is this particular part of the population that is moving to France and how this might impact individuals, families, and communities. It can give us hints as to how the country may treat this population and the potential for more people from Afghanistan to follow. France’s history with immigrants who are understood as Muslim is a history of exploitation and marginalization that has led to extreme social and political exclusion and violence. So this current moment when similar or related patterns could occur deserves a historical perspective.
North Africa and Afghanistan are very different places, but both have populations understood as Muslim. I am interested in how these populations may be understood as similar, not claiming any inherent similarity or spreading the idea of the so-called Muslim World.


North Africa was a primary site of French colonialism. During World War I, young men from North African colonies, primarily Algeria, were brought into France to replace the labor force. A larger and more permanent immigration to France occurred following World War II. A labor force was needed to replace those who had died and for the reconstruction of Paris. Again, these immigrants were primarily young men. In the 1950s, when the process of decolonization began in Algeria, women and children began coming to France as well.
Bringing young men out of the colonies took them away from family-based and communitarian social structures. When women and children moved to France communities organized based on kinship and area of origin were recreated. They became sites of shared power and enabled groups of people to once again connect with those who spoke a common language and shared a common heritage. This was during the Algerian War of Independence, and FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front) supporters began organizing in France. French state forces clashed with pro FLN Algerians, including at the Paris massacre of 1961 when police attacked a peaceful demonstration. To break up anti-colonial organizing and with the stated goal of promoting integration North African immigrants were relocated to public housing in the banlieues, northern suburbs of Paris. Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans were treated as one population and grouped together in small, overcrowded apartments in large buildings. The spatial reorganization of populations threatened cohesive communities.
The building of public housing was supported by a wealth of construction jobs for immigrants from the mid-50s through the mid-70s. Since the 1973 oil embargo large-scale deindustrialization has occurred in France and the job market in the banlieue has shrunk by half. The North African immigrant population has become increasingly separated from economic and political involvement, confined to suburbs that lack transportation to Paris and have been neglected by the state.
France is officially a raceless state – race may not be recognized by the government. North Africans are treated as a racial other and face harsh discrimination, including employment discrimination, but this cannot be legally addressed along racial lines. When this population becomes visible in the press it is in a very gendered way. So-called “riots” involving “youths,” understood as North African and/or Muslim young men, have received international press coverage in recent years. Religion is a primary lens for understanding this population since France is also a secular state (of course its racelessness is based on a white French norm and secular language masks Christian norms). Bans on the burqa, hijab, and other religiously associated clothing, especially in schools, put young Muslim women in the spotlight. Veiling has been conceptualized as anti-secular behavior, out of step with mainstream French culture. The veil has been used to paint those understood as Muslim as oppressive to women, in contrast to white French culture which is supposedly more enlightened. Rather than real people capable of thinking for themselves young Muslim women are seen as being in need of saving, not capable of making their own choices, and evidence of a broad cultural, religious, and/or racial group’s inferiority.
This is in line with the treatment in the press of young women and girls in Afghanistan. I draw a connection not only because of potentially related immigration patterns but because both populations are understood as Muslim, grouped together along religious lines as distinctly different from white Judeo-Christian Americans and Europeans. “Afghan girls” appear in the press most often as targets of violence. This reinforces notions of Afghanistan as a sexist place with a sexist Muslim population.
The New York Times is very interested in “saving the world’s women,” a framing that robs women of their agency. Further, “the world” is a phrase used to suggest places outside so-called Western countries. It implies women who are elsewhere and different need saving, and this often means Muslim women. So I do not expect excellent coverage of the reality of young Afghan women’s lives. But when discussing immigrant “Afghan boys” the paper fails to examine why it is this particular part of the Afghan population that is immigrating to France. Where are young Afghan women when they are not being attacked and in need of saving? Where are any Muslim young women in France when they are not perceived as going against white secular (read: Christian) cultural norms and being accused of false consciousness?
The article on “Afghan boys” suggests they are moving to France looking for work. The country already has structures in place for exploiting the labor of those understood as Muslim or excluding them from employment and segregating them away from the French metropole. It is important to understand the stories of young men moving from Afghanistan to France not just as isolated personal narratives but as the result of politically meaningful actions and the early moments of potential conflict within the state. How is this situation different from or informed by past immigration history? How will the French state respond to the presence of Afghan young men and how will it react if they are followed by families?

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12 Comments

  1. Jake N.
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I just arrived in Lyon, France two weeks ago to start a semester of political science studying. It is very, very striking to me just how little white French people seem to attempt to hide their racist attitudes toward French people of black and Arab descents. I wrote about this on my personal blog, using some first-hand examples from my first week here.
    But what you wrote about spatial divisions and alterity is painfully clear here, even though Lyon doesn’t have quite as large a Muslim population as Paris or Marseille. The centre-ville (in Lyon, this is the “Presqu’île” or central penninsula) seems to serve two purposes, a center of municipal commerce and government and a chic residential center for the wealthier white upper classes.
    I’ve only been to one of the less centrally located areas of Lyon, and I didn’t see HLMs to the same extent as I have read about in Paris, but it was very clear that I was in a Muslim, Arab neighborhood, with signs in Arabic, kebab shops and halal butchers on every block, and far fewer white people walking around.
    I think that this separation reinforces the status of immigrant and later-generation families as migrants: they still need to migrate to get to the commercial center. They are still outsiders to perceived domincant French cultural norms or whiteness and Catholicism. (One correction to your enlightening post: the dominant religion is more specific than Christianity, it’s Catholicism. Any notions of “laïcité” or secularism are in my mind completely bunk when public elementary schools are connected to churches and have posters detailing the liturgical year on hallway walls.)
    France is really a crazy place to be right now, with Europe’s biggest Muslim population and all the surrounding issues of secularism, clothing laws, etc. Living here so far has proved an invaluable basis of comparison for what I’ve read in the media.

  2. Jake N.
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Quick correction: in the second to last paragraph, that should read, “perceived dominant French cultural norms.” Sorry!

  3. cattrack2
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    “The article frames poverty and violence in Afghanistan as existing despite the war. In reality aggression from countries including the U.S. and European nations is productive of increased instability and refugee populations.”
    This is obviously a thoughtful & considered piece here Jos, but do you really mean to suggest that the US has been aggressive toward Afghanistan? On the 8th anniversary of 9/11??? Really?
    Until 9/11 Afghanistan was an afterthought for the 3% of Americans who even knew it as a country. For a piece that is thoughtful & careful in its research, calling the US aggressive in the face of a naked and unprovoked massacre undermines your credibility…even when I tend to agree with the balance of your analysis.

  4. dianita
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Why shouldn’t France ban the burqa? It is after all THEIR country and THEIR laws. No one asked Muslims to emigrate to France and France should not have to change its secular laws to appease Mulsims. I am against religion of any sort and admire France for its secularity. It is very disturbing that Christianity is often denounced on this site as being patriarchal and oppressive to women ( as it often is). Christian fundamentalist are often talked about here and even made fun of. However, when it comes to Islam, political correctness dicates that we somehow cannot criticize it or else we are part of the same right-wing fundie movement. Well, I am a progressive feminist and I totally agree with France’s laws banning the burqa. If Muslims want to keep every aspect of their religion intact (some even call for Sharia law to be imposed in France) then I’m sorry they should not emigrate to a secular country like France. I am not racist I am just against extremist measures like the veil just like I am against extremist movements like the Quiverfull.
    I am half-Italian dn half_honduran and lived in Europe for a while and I can say it is not about race, it is about Muslims trying to impose their beliefs and taking advantage of lax European immigration laws.

  5. dianita
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Why shouldn’t France ban the burqa? It is after all THEIR country and THEIR laws. No one asked Muslims to emigrate to France and France should not have to change its secular laws to appease Mulsims. I am against religion of any sort and admire France for its secularity. It is very disturbing that Christianity is often denounced on this site as being patriarchal and oppressive to women ( as it often is). Christian fundamentalist are often talked about here and even made fun of. However, when it comes to Islam, political correctness dicates that we somehow cannot criticize it or else we are part of the same right-wing fundie movement. Well, I am a progressive feminist and I totally agree with France’s laws banning the burqa. If Muslims want to keep every aspect of their religion intact (some even call for Sharia law to be imposed in France) then I’m sorry they should not emigrate to a secular country like France. I am not racist I am just against extremist measures like the veil just like I am against extremist movements like the Quiverfull.
    I am half-Italian dn half_honduran and lived in Europe for a while and I can say it is not about race, it is about Muslims trying to impose their beliefs and taking advantage of lax European immigration laws.

  6. Jake N.
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Not to be a tart, but no one asked France to colonize North Africa a few centuries ago. During the whole time when French North Africa was a colony and considered part of France––and do remember that Algerian independence wasn’t attained until 1962, very recent––Maghrebi Muslims (more so men, as Jos said) could migrate there more or less easily. The Muslims who you are talking about, who wear the niqab in France (I still haven’t seen one woman in a niqab or burqa, though a few dozen in jilbabs and a lot in hijabs), are not mostly from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or anywhere other than the Maghreb. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe simply because it ruled Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria for generations.
    I don’t know exactly where I personally stand on the “burqa ban” issue, but it is very easy for me to see how a population who was submitted to French laws and norms for such a long time and basically stripped of its own culture could see symbols of Islam like female dress as a way to proudly reclaim its culture.
    The main point is, it is because France colonized North Africa that there are so many Muslims there. It’s not just random. Another point: a lot of France’s Muslims are also French citizens, born and raised in France, and being privy to all the same rights as any other French citizen. Their skin color or religion or choice to wear whatever sort of body covering doesn’t make them any less of a citizen than anyone else.

  7. Jake N.
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for continual errors, this should start out “not to be a tart commenter…”. I am not, actually, a tart.

  8. dianita
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    You said it- ” a few centuries ago.” I’m talking about Muslims in general who live in France, regardless of country of birth.

  9. rhowan
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    “do you really mean to suggest that the US has been aggressive toward Afghanistan? On the 8th anniversary of 9/11??? Really?
    Until 9/11 Afghanistan was an afterthought for the 3% of Americans who even knew it as a country. For a piece that is thoughtful & careful in its research, calling the US aggressive in the face of a naked and unprovoked massacre undermines your credibility…”
    I think perhaps you should educate yourself on what the United States was doing in Afghanistan in the 1980s, American sponsorship of the Mujahideen and the ongoing aftereffects of those events. And by “perhaps” I mean, you really really need to. Because your ignorant revisionist interpretation of history is going to offend a lot of people.

  10. cattrack2
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    The only people offended by this are Al Qaeda apologists. I’m well aware of America’s 1980′s involvement in Afghanistan & I’m well aware that we walked away from it as soon as the Soviets left. But only an AQ apologist would link that to Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the US. 1) OBL is Saudi, as were virtually all of the 9/11 attackers; not a single one was Afghani. 2)OBL’s cassus belli had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but instead the US’ military presence in Saudi Arabia. 3) The civil war which enveloped Afghanistan post the Soviet occupation was an ethnic & regional divide, not an anti-Western or globo-political one. Sure you can say that the seeds for 9/11 were sown in the US’ 1980s involvement, but only insofar as OBL & a number of Taliban henchmen received their training & experience on the US taxpayers’ dime. OBL is simply a Muslim extremist. And I’d think you’d show more respect on the anniversary of 9/11.
    So read a (real) book yourself, or stop this lazy, ideologist, revisioninst gibberish you substitute for thinking.

  11. rhowan
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    You said:  ”do you really mean to suggest that the US has been aggressive toward Afghanistan? On the 8th anniversary of 9/11??? Really?
    Until 9/11 Afghanistan was an afterthought for the 3% of Americans who even knew it as a country.”
    Then you said:   “I’m well aware of America’s 1980′s involvement in Afghanistan & I’m well aware that we walked away from it as soon as the Soviets left.”
    You’re contradicting yourself a little.
    Perhaps your objection is over the specific use of the word “aggressive”, because we both seem to agree that the United States interfered in Afghanistan. I’m willing to swap out “agressive” for “self centered and abusive”. But personally I feel fairly comfortable describing the distribution of school textbooks promoting violence and religious jihad as an aggressive act.
    The part where we really seem to disagree is whether America’s actions (“aggressive” or not) contributed to instability in Afghanistan and a rise in refugeeism.
    (Also, no one is talking about 9/11 and Osama bin Laden here but you.)

  12. stéphane
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    “it is very easy for me to see how a population who was submitted to French laws and norms for such a long time and basically stripped of its own culture could see symbols of Islam like female dress as a way to proudly reclaim its culture.”
    So you support sexism when it is used for a “cultural revenge” ( if such an idiotic concept really exists ) ?
    Proudly reclaiming one’s culture with the worst mysoginy is a concept that literally makes me want to puke .
    and i’m amazed at the hypocrisy of alot wealthy whites who promote the muslim veil and in the same time put all the efforts in the world to put their children in the most secular and white schools and live in the whitest and most secular neighbourhoods ( not the muslim one ).
    Like dianita , i really am in awe of the fact that poeple here who spend their time despising religion are in ALL SERIOUSNESS defending the burqa or the veil .
    It’s unbelievably comical .

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