When the French government invaded Algeria, in 1830, it started a vast campaign of military "pacification," which was quickly followed by the imposition of French laws deemed necessary for the civilizing mission to succeed. Women were crucial to that enterprise. In articles, stories and novels of the day, Algerian women were universally depicted as oppressed, and so in order for civilization truly to penetrate Algeria, the argument went, the women had to cast off their veils. General Bugeaud, who was charged with administering the territory in the 1840s, declared, "The Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze." Algerian men, meanwhile, were perceived to be sexual predators who could not control their urges unless their womenfolk were draped in veils. Colonization would solve this by bringing the light of European civilization to Arab males, who, after a few generations of French rule, would learn to control their urges. The governor-general of Algeria remarked in 1898 that "the Arab man's, the native Jew's and the Arab woman's physiology, as well as tolerance for pederasty, and typically oriental ways of procreating and relating to one another are so different from the European man's that it is necessary to take appropriate measures." As late as 1958, French wives of military officers, desperate to stop support for the FLN, which spearheaded the war of liberation against France, staged a symbolic "unveiling" of Algerian women at a pro-France rally in the capital of Algiers.Do read more of Leila Lalami's excellent review of The Politics of the Veil, but the point highlighted above as always struck me as extremely important. Unfortunately, French authorities -- notably Nicolas Sarkozy when he was minister of the interior -- have chosen to empower religious fundamentalists and depict them as representative of the Muslim community at large.
Decades later, millions of French citizens with ancestral roots in North Africa are being told much the same thing: in order to be French, they must "integrate" by giving up that which makes them different--Islam. The religion, however, is not regarded as a set of beliefs that adherents can adjust to suit the demands of their everyday lives but rather as an innate and unbridgeable attribute. It is easy to see how racism can take hold in such a context. During the foulard controversies, it did not appear to matter that 95 percent of French Muslims do not attend mosque, that more than 80 percent of Muslim women in France do not wear the headscarf or even that the number of schoolgirls in headscarves has never been more than a few hundred. The racist notion of innate differences between French citizens of North African origin and those of European origin defined the debate. For instance, the Lévy sisters were sometimes referred to in the press as Alma and Lila Lévy-Omari, thus making their ancestral link to North Africa (on their mother's side) clearer to the reader.