A Guide for White People on the #BurkiniBan and Discussing Muslim Women

This week pictures emerged of French police forcing a Muslim woman to remove clothing on a beach at gunpoint. A number of French cities have recently passed bans against burkinis—or more specifically, against full body wetsuits when worn by Muslim women. And while France has long criminalized Muslim women’s choice of dress—they cannot cover their face in public or their hair in school—the stripping at gunpoint seems to have caused a tipping point in outrage.

While it’s long-delayed, I’m glad white people are taking notice of French Islamophobia. But if my newsfeed is any indication, y’all are just noticing the tip of the iceberg. There is a long, brutal context for this week’s photos from Nice. I’m sure some folks will roll their eyes when I bring up colonial France (“but that was SO long ago?!”), but bear with me. Colonial France offers a horrifying and wholly accurate example of the tried and trusted cycle of white people policing Muslim women’s clothing.

First, the veil is used to justify anti-Muslim violence. In the 1900s, the French colonial regime pointed to Algerian women’s veils as a sign of the barbarism of the colonized and embarked on a campaign to force its removal. Their obsession with the veil served key functions. First, the veil was a physical barrier between Muslim women and the colonial male gaze—removing it, quite literally, stripped Muslim women of a mechanism to deny French consumption of their bodies. Second, the projection of gender violence onto Algerian culture, and onto the bodies of veiled women, served to demonize Algerian men as violent and oppressive (the key to pillaging people is to label them as monsters!). And third, the “oppressive” veil served as a foil for a liberal West: if those who veil could be forcibly defined as oppressed, then French colonization could be seen as a “civilizing” mission. It is against this background of the state’s forced removal of clothes, that women increasingly chose to veil as an act of political resistance.


“Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself!” Algeria (1950s)

Second, the state could not give fewer fucks for women’s rights. This should be clear enough given that colonists mass raped, murdered, exploited, and devastated people—women and otherwise—across the globe. But if you are among those who don’t believe misogyny until it happens to white ladies: the colonists offered clear examples of their hypocritical concern for women’s issues. The ol’ classic is Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, as described in Leila Ahmed’s seminal Women and Gender in Islam and summarized by Katherine Vinar over a decade ago: Cromer thought ‘Islam’s degradation of women and its insistence on veiling’ was the ‘fatal obstacle’ to the Egyptian’s ‘attainment of civilized character.’ The Egyptians, he argued, should be ‘forced’ to become ‘civilised’ by disposing of the veil. And what did this forward-thinking, feminist-sounding veil-burner do when he got home to Britain? Cromer founded and presided over the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, which tried, by any means possible, to stop women getting the vote.

Lastly, white feminists act as a “handmaid.” European women—wives of colonists, missionaries, teachers, activists, and self-declared feminists—did not mind this theft of feminist rhetoric. Instead, they worked hand-in-hand with the empire’s efforts to “save” Muslim women and remove them from their veils; in doing so, they legitimized the colonial project to audiences back home. As Ahmed writes“Whatever the disagreements of feminism with white male domination within Western societies, outside their borders feminism turned from being the critic of the system of white male dominance to being its docile servant. Anthropology, it has often been said, served as a handmaid to colonialism. Perhaps it must also be said that feminism, or the ideas of feminism, served as its other handmaid.”

This cycle—justify racist violence by pointing to the veil, care very little about women’s actual rights, and snag the support of white feminists—has repeated itself a thousand times over. I’m rereading Crystal Feimster’s Southern Horrors right now, which shows the same pattern: a concern for rape was used to justify anti-Black lynching; men who lynched “rapists” themselves abused white and Black women alike; white feminists nevertheless offered support for lynchings.

It’s worth taking a more recent look at this cycle with regard to the veil—this time well after former colonies gained formal independence. After 2001, the United States invaded and occupied two Muslim-majority countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars had little to do with 9/11 and a lot to with making money for war profiteersTo justify its killing of hundreds of thousands of Brown people abroad, the Bush administration doubled down on its focus on women’s rights and the veil, claiming that U.S. military presence abroad would “liberate” veiled women from an Other culture that forced them to cover.

Laura Bush edited

A few tweaks and Laura Bush’s post-2001 call to war against Afghanistan could be wholly applicable to the situation in France.

Again, it should be clear that this had nothing to do with women’s rights given that U.S. and NATO forces killed pregnant women and dug bullets out of their bodies, raped Afghans with dogs, etc. For those who don’t believe misogyny until it happens to white women, consider the Bush administration’s long-waged assault on reproductive rights, sex education, and comprehensive women’s healthcare. Let’s not pretend Republicans went to war because they cared about women.

As always, nothing tickled the feathers of white feminists more than an opportunity to be a savior for women of color—and their “saving” as always, came in the form of support for anti-Muslim violence. Laura Bush played a key role in mobilizing feminist organizations in support of the invasions. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s current president testified in front of Congress—check out her testimony, update by yours truly in case she should like to comment on the same situation happening in France today.

Updating in case FMF wanted to express outrage at France!

This same cycle is exactly what is happening in France. Many Arab and Black communities live, according to the French Prime Minister himself, under “social and territorial apartheid.” Marginalized because of their race and immigrant origins, these communities face brutal poverty, ghettoized living conditions, racist policing, poor education—the list goes on. To justify—and more importantly, distract—from its treatment of these communities and turn focus to French “civilized” culture, the French government has recreated the specter of the Muslim boogeyman: barbaric, a threat to the state, and best recognized by an accompanying veiled women.

Does this have anything to do with women’s rights? Nope. If the French were truly concerned for Muslim women at risk of gender violence, they would not make it more difficult for Muslim women to participate in public life. They would not push them out of schools. They would take the resources funneled into their burkini obsession and give it to anti-domestic violence organizations fighting for the 223,000 or so French women abused by their partners every year. They would not strip women at gunpoint.

And lastly, are white feminists complicit? Sadly so. French feminists have had their racist heartstrings tugged and eaten this shit up. From women’s affairs ministers, to party leaders, to iconic French feminist orgs, the European feminist has again come in favor of racist state violence.

Many of you reading this were probably already outraged. Hopefully, those who weren’t have joined the movement of outraged allies as well. So glad to have you on board! As you embark on your journey of fighting state misogyny—now alongside other state violence (such as Islamophobia, racism, war, *and* imperialism!), I’ll close with a few pointers on how you can do even better:

  1. Avoid comparing the policing of white women’s clothing to the policing of Muslim women. First, not all oppression needs to be expressed in terms of white people’s experience to be understood. Second, these comparisons miss a very significant point: the unveiling of Muslim women has been part and parcel of broader imperial efforts to destroy Muslim communities. This isn’t just about patriarchy, people—this is also about racism and imperialism. Neither of which white girls in tiny bikinis have ever had to face.
  2. Avoid comparing the actions of white men to the Taliban or (*insert scary group of men of color*). While the Taliban is certainly guilty of misogyny, they have yet to invade, colonize, and occupy white people for centuries. This comparison again boils violence down just to patriarchy—erasing the fact that white men’s violence against Muslim women also involves economic exploitation, war, educational and employment discrimination, and more. White men take the cake. Don’t let them off the hook.
  3. Be wary of “solidarity” actions that erase these differences: while British women saying “wear what you want” is an always timely message, limiting our solidarity to women’s clothing ignores the bigger issue: the unique ways in which Muslim women experience gendered structural violence in Europe and white feminists’ complicity within those structures. If you are a white woman truly wanting to counter anti-Muslim violence, ditch the savior complex and direct your action towards dismantling state racism.
  4. Elevate voices of Muslim women. While I am grateful that the gunpoint removal of a Muslim women’s veil has led white women to finally share sympathetic feelings on Twitter, this is not their story. While we share experiences of rape, gender violence, discrimination, etc., we do not share our experiences of state sponsored racism. We don’t need white lady spokespeople. Let to us speak for ourselves.
  5. That whole “I dislike what you do, but will defend your right to do so” thing? Cut it out. You know what it sounds a lot like? “Love the sinner, hate the sin” and it seems like many of you understand why that is horse shit. So long as our clothing causes you “discomfort” (aka threatens your sense of security in white culture), bigoted laws, violence, and Islamophobia will operate in its name.
  6. Don’t talk about ISIS. White violence is an issue in and of itself. Referencing concerns about this as “a recruiting tool” deflects the source of fear—the object defined as “threatening”—back over to some group in the Middle East. ISIS is violent yes. But, the issue here isn’t that ISIS might get recruits. The issue is that the burkini ban reflects an ongoing system of disenfranchisement in France against its Muslim citizens. The greatest source of violence has been and continues to be white men. Focus on that.
  7. And lastly, don’t share images of Muslim women forcibly undressed. No radical fight against gender violence should involve tactics that violate basic consent.

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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