An Unfamiliar Gaze: A Muslim American in France and the 10 year Anniversary of the Veil Ban

May 1, 2014
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GazeBy Minifre Harak

Yesterday I stepped out and faced the world after two weeks of heavy reclusiveness. With the exception of some minor need-based errands, tampon-run of sorts, I have been steeped in work. By this point I have largely convinced myself that the self-imposed entrenchment, albeit within the palatable comfort of my apartment, is due to the pile of assignments and projects that await my attention. However, underneath this layer of self-delusion, I knew I could have spared 30 minutes here and there, grabbed some lunch or took a stroll down busy lane.

In reality it is just exhaustion, YES exhaustion! Not simply the going out part per say, I mean I can get past the typical hermit like laziness – the type that takes over you when one is engrossed in an idea or a piece of writing. Then what exactly is exhausting, you ask? As I move past my own BS and dig deeper, I realize my utter and absolute discomfort with the ‘white gaze’, something I have sort of forgotten and normalized. Consistently strategizing how best to evade, subdue, circumvent this gaze is just damn draining. Would I feel any better if this gaze was brown, black or even purple, to be honest I am not sure, probably not (I will get back to you if I ever relocate to purple land). However, what I have tremendous amount of experience with is the all-pervasive white gaze, in its array of variants. In other words, I can speak quite well to being put under the Liberal microscope, and often sweating profusely underneath it. I know, to many this is a duh kind of point. I mean unless you’re some sort of attention-hog and wholeheartedly believe that any attention is good attention, people generally do not enjoy being gawked at and scrutinized.

VeilHowever, before I proceed any further, here is some context. I am a VISIBLE Muslim woman. For people who are unfamiliar with this euphemism; it means I wear the thing on my head like them Moslems you see on TV. Yes, that was my attempt at conveying ignoramus-speak of the American variant. But do not get me wrong, recently I have been kind of missing this type of ignorance. You see, I am American and I found a type of comfort with the American “where the F&$k you from?” look. I have, in fact, almost developed it into a science. We have the truly opened-eye “curious Jane” prototype – friendly, a little sheltered, but OK to approach. Then there is the “I know you people” look, a bit more aggressive, but rather harmless, can approach with caution. And finally there is the “blood-shot” look, it’s quite rare but when spotted the diagnostic is clear – abort abort!

Growing up in the States, this rather elaborate mechanism of heuristics left me largely comfortable within a normally uncomfortable environment. Armed with my go-to heuristics, historical analogies and favorite taglines (“aren’t we all really immigrants”), all nicely wrapped in a layer of white guilt. I learned how to gracefully shift and slide past and around my interlocutors, carving out quite an elaborate and intricate waltz.

However, now I find myself in a new land dealing with a whole new cast of white privilege. I have been living in France for roughly two years. I largely speak at a 1st grade level (note: I am being quite generous with myself, too embarrassing to say at a kindergarten level). France has been real great in general; I have enjoyed most of what a young American in France would. I love the calm pace, j’adore les petite pâtisseries and of course the quiet life; I actually have time to breathe and think!

At the same time, unlike the typical American, I find myself unwittingly pulled into an old and tense national debate, laïcité vs. Muslim visibility, where I once again find myself on the not so favorable end of the duel. My second hand French and just general cluelessness leaves me largely unequipped amid a frosty ideological landscape. On the one hand, this type of environment has done wonders for my writing. Just a quick piece of advice: to any artist/writers suffering from creative block try relocating to an environment where you carry a rather unprivileged social position. It will definitely stimulate your creative juices.

On a more serious note, when issues of space and privilege culminate around marginalized subjects things can quickly take a rather politicised and violent turn, something difficult to circumvent even for the entrenched native. The tension between France’s roughly 6.5 million Muslims and the mainstream hit a rather frigid turn last year, particularly following the High Court’s ruling in favour of a woman fired for refusing to remove her headscarf. Public opinion polls indicate strong disagreement with the decision, stirring up old tensions and opening up talks of further tightening of hijab-regulations. And as history shows when politics and issues revolving around the body of women overlap, violence is not far behind. Islamophobic violence was not in short supply in 2013, including a 3-day street riot and several incidents in which veiled women were attacked. The one story that I cannot seem to shake off involves a young pregnant veiled woman. The young woman was targeted by two men in Paris, a vicious attack which resulted in the loss of her four-month pregnancy. The assailants are reported to have begun their attack with pulling off her veil, escalating to multiple blows to her abdomen.

There seems to be a general level of disdain directed to visible Muslim women. I used to be of the opinion that growing Islamophobia is linked to the muslimness of these women, but in Europe what’s actually at issue is more so visibility, particularly in certain spaces. So shopping in the Immigrant-dense boros, south of the city in which I live, is rather uneventful, whereas walking into a bourgeois restaurant feels like a trek through an alien atmosphere thickened with century old tensions and geopolitics – hence the impetus for my exhaustion.

Invisible social boundaries seem to carry tremendous power and when crossed it is often quite blaring and uncomfortable for everyone involved. As if an invisible security sensor has been triggered, resulting in that ear piercing alarm stopping everyone in their tracks. There are the extreme few that will take matters into their own hands and attempt to engage with the intruder, like in the case of the poor pregnant-women, but most will simply stop, stare and scan. And this scan will tell you almost all you need to know about how your story has been written into the fabric of society.

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HarakMinifre Harak is a researcher, writer and aspiring filmmaker. She has a background in Politics, African Studies and Psychology. Currently Minifre is pursuing doctoral studies in Politics, exploring issues of contestation, identity and the everyday public space.

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  1. […] Originally published by Minifre Harak on the Feminist Wire.  […]

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