A parallel investigation of the two figures of whores and niqabées reveals the current exclusionary dynamics embedded in the nation-building process as both veiled women and prostitutes function as symbolic signifiers of national difference within the Republic. They are construed as “bodies-boundaries” within the larger new frontiers of the French Republic.50
In doing so, the French state echoes larger European trends. As Jasbir Puar and Judith Butler argue,51 new configurations of sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, and ethnicity are realigning in relation to contemporary forces of nationalism. In this reconfiguration, some feminists and different political factions instrumentalize sexual freedoms to assert Western exceptionalism, to define the preconditions of citizenship, and to shape the image of the ahistorical “other” trapped in barbarian monstrosity and bound to remain untouched by modernity. Those evolutions also reveal what Didier Fassin and Dominique Memmi have described as “the greater and deeper targeting, by policies, of the private relation that an individual holds with his physical destiny, but also the growing concern for issues related to bodies, health, and life [and we could add sexuality] in the government of societies.”52
The analysis of the political handling of these two figures highlights the specific use that is made of French republicanism. Some republican feminists support politicians in asserting that whores and niqabées are oppressed and blind to their own oppression. What is striking is that this coalition of some feminist discourses with the current political views actually re-enacts and re- enforces a virile version of nationalism. As McClintock puts it, “all too often in male nationalisms, gender difference between women and men serves to symbolically define the limits of national difference and power between men. Excluded from direct action as national citizens, women are subsumed symbolically into the national body politics as its boundary and metaphoric limit…. Women are typically construed as the symbolic bearers of the nation, but are denied any direct relation to national agency.”53 In contemporary France, gender differences are again used to define national boundaries: the rhetoric of the oppression of women, supported by the republican values of equality, freedom, and dignity and mobilized by the state with the complicity of some feminists, serve to exclude “other” women from the “imagined community.” In short, this rhetoric of oppression is the moral grammar that justifies the denial of women’s agency and full citizenship, and their exclusion from the public sphere. According to this view the French female citizen has to embody a sexuality that is neither commoditized, nor tightly controlled by an institution like religion or patriarchy. Sexuality, which has become a central component of identity in postmodern societies, is no longer left to individual self-governance: by identifying and excluding two sexualized figures of female citizens, the state also prescribes a new regime of sexual normativities—shaping a sexual citizenship—through a rigid and contradictory injunction to sexual freedom. Those exclusionary processes mark the installation of a gendered regime of visibility that defines and disciplines women’s appearance in the public domain. Like during colonial times, politicians target women’s bodies as national territories whose surface and appearance must be compatible with a set of state-defined recommendations. However, as we have suggested, the complicities of a certain feminist discourse with the political power rhetorically produce “visual victims” only to promote a larger political agenda, enforcing a virile nationalism, prescribing new sexual normativities, and criminalizing immigrants and those living at the social margins.
Billaud, Julie; Castro, Julie, “Whores and Niqabées: The Sexual Boundaries of French Nationalism”, in: French Politics, Culture & Society, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2013 p. 97-98