Far from initiating a radical rupture with the past, recent developments can be read as a continuation of earlier colonial and national attempts at delineating the borders of the French territory and French society. Indeed, policies relating to both prostitution and veiling were important domains of state intervention in colonial Algeria. In his analysis of discourses articulated during the French colonial rule in Algeria, Bradford Vivian highlighted a concern with the need to preserve the unity of French territory through the assimilation of Algerian people and the removal of all distinctive signs (especially the veil) from the public domain.17 The public unveiling of Algerian women functioned as a symbolic reminder of the colonizers’ absolute superiority and sovereignty over the Algerian territory. According to Frantz Fanon: “Every new Algerian woman unveiled announced to the occupier an Algerian society whose systems of defense were in the process of dislocation, open and breached.”18 One way to exert domination was the sexual colonization of women, real or symbolic. Pointing to the prolific production of postcards showing unveiled Algerian women, Vivian underlines a mixture of exotic fascination and repulsion for Algerian women’s bodies escaping from the regulating gaze of the colonizer. Removing Algerian women’s veils, “the visible barrier to the establishment of French indivisibility,”19 became a central motive of the “civilizing mission.”20
Similarly, one of the first colonial moves in Algeria was to regulate prostitution. Christelle Taraud, in examining the implementation of regulationist policies in French North African colonies, shows how prostitution policies aimed also at colonizing indigenous women.21 Those policies relied on the legalization of a status, on the structuring of the “milieu” along the lines of class and race and on physical containment through the implementation of specialized and closed spaces. Those spaces had to be immediately accessible to the gaze of colonial authorities, as the father of French regulationism Parent- Duchâtelet had specified. By enclosing women and relegating them to the margins of colonial cities, legislators and administrators aimed at regulating contact not only between classes but also between races. In other words, while visual accessibility and control were also at the core of the regulationist project in metropolitan France, policies that aimed to regulate prostitution in the colonies also served an important function within the wider colonial project. Taraud also highlights that this margin of the colonial society—prostitution— made possible a real colonial encounter with all of its attendant conflicts and ambiguities. A double system of cultural references prevailed in the spaces devoted to prostitution, the one of the colonizers and the one of the colonized. The hybridization that took place was of course sexual, but also social, linguistic, aesthetic, and religious. Prostitutes were border-individuals, belonging to different communities (Jews, Muslims, Europeans) and embodying the existing links and hybridization processes between those communities. During the periods immediately preceding and succeeding the independence of North African French colonies, nationalist movements strived to make those spaces disappear. A virile version of universalist nationalism prevailed, firmly rejecting this counter-society that embodied the reality of a colonial encounter.
This historical retrospective helps us trace the historicity of recent policies applied to veiled Muslim women and sex workers, while underlining some thematic continuities in debates dealing with women’s bodies in the postcolonial present. Now, like before, the manipulation of national sentiments serves as a means to divert attention from more pressing social issues. It is not by chance that prostitution and veiling were discussed within the frameworks of internal security and national identity at a moment when the government was facing rising discontent related to the economic crisis. Indeed, prostitutes and Muslim women were easy scapegoats whose exclusion from the “imagined community” 22 served as a placebo solution to answer the need for national unity in a context of growing economic and social tensions. The French state made it a point of honour to get back the “lost territories of the Republic”23 using the argument that veiling and prostitution are practices that threaten the integrity of the nation as well as republican values. What these different debates reveal is the consolidation of a form of gendered policy through which a certain narrative of French citizenship that builds upon a system of difference and belonging strengthens prescriptions of permissible feminine bodies.24 The flagging of the divisional threat that veiled women and prostitutes were supposed to represent drew from an implicit theory of visibility (citizenship is tied to the visibility of the face) and from a peremptory vision of domination (veiled women and prostitutes are oppressed materially and psychologically).
Billaud, Julie; Castro, Julie, “Whores and Niqabées: The Sexual Boundaries of French Nationalism”, in: French Politics, Culture & Society, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2013 , pp. 87-89