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Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion -- Chapter 1

Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion -- Chapter 1

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By Trica Danielle Keaton; published by Indiana University Press. You can purchase a copy of this book from IU Press at: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=22833

Muslim girls growing up in the outer-cities of Paris are portrayed many ways in popular discourse -- as oppressed, submissive, foreign, "kids from the projects," even as veil-wearing menaces to France's national identity -- but rarely are they perceived simply as what they say they are: French. Amid widespread perceptions of heightened urban violence attributed to Muslims and highly publicized struggles over whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear headscarves to school, Muslim girls often appear to be French society's quintessential "other." For this vivid, evocative study, Trica Danielle Keaton conducted ethnographic research among Muslim teenagers of North and West African origin, meeting them in everyday locales such as schools, housing projects, and other settings. She finds contradictions between the French ideal of universalism and the lived reality of ethnic distinction and racialized discrimination. The author's own experiences as an African American woman and non-Muslim are key parts of her analysis. Keaton makes a powerful statement about identity, race, and educational politics in contemporary France.

(Chapter 1 is titled Unmixing French “National Identity”)

Trica Danielle Keaton is Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

ISBN 0-253-21834-9
By Trica Danielle Keaton; published by Indiana University Press. You can purchase a copy of this book from IU Press at: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=22833

Muslim girls growing up in the outer-cities of Paris are portrayed many ways in popular discourse -- as oppressed, submissive, foreign, "kids from the projects," even as veil-wearing menaces to France's national identity -- but rarely are they perceived simply as what they say they are: French. Amid widespread perceptions of heightened urban violence attributed to Muslims and highly publicized struggles over whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear headscarves to school, Muslim girls often appear to be French society's quintessential "other." For this vivid, evocative study, Trica Danielle Keaton conducted ethnographic research among Muslim teenagers of North and West African origin, meeting them in everyday locales such as schools, housing projects, and other settings. She finds contradictions between the French ideal of universalism and the lived reality of ethnic distinction and racialized discrimination. The author's own experiences as an African American woman and non-Muslim are key parts of her analysis. Keaton makes a powerful statement about identity, race, and educational politics in contemporary France.

(Chapter 1 is titled Unmixing French “National Identity”)

Trica Danielle Keaton is Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

ISBN 0-253-21834-9

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Published by: Voices and Visions Project on Oct 28, 2009
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Unmixing French “National Identity”
To say that we’re French means a lot ofdifferent things; it’s almost like saying thatwe’re Christian, almost, because most of thetime, French people are Christian. Maybe onthe outside we’re French and on the insidewe’re Arab. But really, our problem is thatour parents are immigrants, and when we goto Algeria, we’re still immigrants. So, we’resomewhere in the middle. That’s how I see it.
—A participant in my study
I’m Senegalese before anything else. Frenchnationality is a passport that opens doors toa lot of places where I wouldn’t have accesswith just a residency card. That’s how I seeit . . . But at the same time, when I go toSenegal, I reach a point when the only thingI want to do is go back home. I actually missFrance to that point when I’m over there.It’s stronger than just the papers. So, I’mSenef; it’s what the Senegalese say, and itfits perfectly. SENEF: Neither French norSenegalese, but between the two.
—Quoted in Quiminal et al., “Les jeunesfilles d’origine africaine en France”
This chapter serves to introduce and situate my focal participants inrelation to French national identity politics. In providing greater in-sights into their self-understandings, backgrounds, preoccupations,views, and observed behaviors, my aim is to show that their incor-poration into French society has not been seamless, but has involvedconfusion and pain. Further, growing up in an increasingly hostile
1
 
reception context complicates their adaptation, and often their self-understandings are a reflection of that complication.As youths from the outer cities whose parents are foreign-born,they share similar worlds of experiences and are assigned many ofthe same social labels, such as “oppressed” or “submissive Muslimgirls,” “immigrants,” and “kids from the projects,” that is, kids fromthat “other France.” Rarely are they seen for what they say they are:French nationals, indeed French girls. The legitimacy of their as-sertions is determined less by what they claim to be, and more bywhat they do, as it is their actions and strategies that ultimately saywho they are, beyond the categories of perception by which theyare identified. When examined in relation to broader questions ofmulticulturalism and national unity, these youths expose the foun-dational weakness of the latter (national unity) while exempli-fying the former (multiculturalism) through “unmixing” a homog-enized notion of Frenchness that is seemingly devoid of ethnic di-versity.Fundamental to their incorporation is the system of national ed-ucation, seen by these youths as the means of overcoming andavoiding treatment they consider punitive. An example that I fore-ground is the prospect and promise of forced marriage, a pervasiveinternational issue experienced by non-Muslims and Muslim girlsalike. I begin with vignettes of three divergent cases interwovenwith common threads, threads firmly attached to France and Frenchnational education.
Aïcha
My first meeting with Aïcha took place in my apartment the dayfollowing the second bombing near the St. Michel metro. Though Ilived just one metro stop away from that station, she insisted on join-ing me at my home rather than meeting closer to her neighborhood.As anti-Muslim feeling was quite high, I was naturally concernedabout her coming to my area. But for Aïcha, as I would learn, comingto me was a chance to get out of her neighborhood and be in “Paris,a seemingly mythological place that she appeared not to know andrarely visited, despite living only one metro stop outside its borders.On that day, as on most occasions, this slim teen was wearing her sig-nature form-fitting Levi’s 501 blue jeans and a T-shirt under a brownsuede jacket. Slung over her back was a black leather knapsack, con-taining another accessory almost essential to her look, her
clopes et 
Unmixing French “National Identity”
33
 
briquet 
(cigarettes and lighter). Dark curls cascaded from the ponytailatop her head, which gave Aïcha the appearance of maturity, indeeda certain sensuality, noted by men who did classic double-takeswhen she passed by. Like other teens, she emphasized and deempha-sized that sensuality according to context: according, that is, towhether she was at home, in school, or out and about with me.At school, Aïcha, like her sisters, was considered a bright stu-dent, though “aggressive” was the epithet often used by teachers todescribe her and her closest friends. As one put it,
You feel this internal tension from them that’s translated into a certain ag-gression . . . I wonder if it comes from what they live, you know, this ten-sion between home— [
 pause
] well, their parents have a certain way of liv-ing in France, a certain mentality, and then they, the girls living in France,are confronted by a world completely different.
Aïcha appeared keenly aware of those differences, some of whichshe conveyed in her journal: “I was raised in a cool way because Ican easily talk to my mother about things, like about marriage. Oth-erwise, my parents are very strict. For example, I can’t go out after6:00
P
.
M
. to visit a friend or do things like that. No way!” Althoughshe often mentioned that her parents were strict, she noted certainironies, such as being allowed to travel to Italy for five days on aschool trip, although she had a strict curfew in France. She alsonoted during one of our conversations that her mother had foundout that she smoked, did not tell her father, and only told her that itwas bad for her health. She expected an altogether stronger reac-tion, one akin to the dreadful, heated exchange between her motherand eldest sister when her mother discovered that her sister had a boyfriend. Amidst accusations of lost virginity and relentless admo-nitions, Aïcha’s sister screamed in self-defense, “You’ll see,
maman,
the sheets will be red,” meaning that her virginity was intact. Thatdeclaration seemed to end the argument, but it ignited talk of mar-riage for Aïcha’s sister.My first visit to her home was not long after that fight, and aswell as being interested in meeting her parents and having a home-cooked
couscous,
I was looking forward to seeing Aïcha in that con-text, among her family. Would she be as unrestrained around themas she was with me? The question was answered immediately whenAïcha answered the door at my arrival. Her attire was drastically dif-ferent from the styles she typically wore at school or outside of herneighborhood. Her high-heeled black boots and tight jeans and
34
Muslim Girls and the Other France

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