With her angelic face, she almost seduced France and became its newest darling. Almost. For her background, as well as the way she covered her hair, would soon expose her. The Angel, so it seems, was nothing more than a treacherous Seducer who almost lured well-meaning French compatriots into her demonic world.
Her name is Mennel and she started as a YouTube artist, singing romantic ballads while accompanying herself on the piano. Her angelic appearance—slim figure, delicate face contours, large blue eyes—made her into an online phenomenon, and the production of The Voice France convinced her to audition for one of the country’s most successful talent shows. On a Saturday evening in February 2018, she made her first public appearance and performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the blind auditions—a Biblical spiritual song, composed by a Jewish artist, sung by an Arab-French Muslim girl in English and Arabic. The audience and the jury members were ecstatic, and they all begged for her to join their team.
It was unclear at the time whether what she wore on her head was a headscarf (hijab), or simply some ornament. The bandana-style headcover, which very nicely fit her azure blue-black dress, left room for speculation. The speculation, however, gradually turned into an investigation. Viewers began to publicly expose Mennel’s “true” identity in the days that followed the audition: the French-Syrian belle was, in fact, a “radical” Muslim. Her performances were not only about peace and love, but also included songs in support of Palestine. They exposed old tweets where she declared the French state to be the “real” terrorist after the Nice attacks and questioned the truthfulness of some of the information about the terrorists (wondering, for example, why they always have their passports with them), as well as Facebook entries where she expressed her support for Tariq Ramadan. The public pressure on Mennel grew as several groups called for her expulsion from the show. One week later, through an online video communiqué, she announced her resignation.
But that was not the end of this fairy-tale-with-no-happy-ending. Mennel was a strong candidate who had made it to the next round of the show, which was prerecorded. The production thus faced a dilemma about what to do with those episodes, which featured her singing alongside other contestants. A solution was found: she would simply be “cut” from the show in the editing process. And this is how beautiful, blue-eyed, veiled Mennel was erased from one of France’s most successful talent shows. The Angel became an unfortunate “mistake” who had to be deleted from the public imaginary.
The story of Mennel’s evacuation from The Voice (first physically, then visually) has become an important, and much commented upon, illustration of France’s treatment of its Muslim minorities, particularly in the aftermath of the attacks that took place in the country since 2015. Yet, beyond the sensationalism that surrounds this case, Mennel’s story is also an illustration and a complication of the analyses proposed by Sara Farris and Joan Scott. Simply put, the figure of Mennel does not simply evoke the oppressed Muslim woman who needs to be saved. Rather, Mennel is a threatening figure who has been chased away from one of the commercial temples of the Republic after being exposed as untrustworthy.
These elements, I argue, should invite us to reflect on how the Muslim woman appears here as more than a helpless subject. She is, rather, a cunning figure who is threatening by virtue of her innocence. It is precisely this ambivalence that partially explains why the Muslim woman has become one of the privileged sites of governmental interventions.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The Muslim woman figures as one of the central anchor points of the “Muslim question.” Integrated into a discourse of emancipation, her body has become the battleground for a new discourse of supremacy. Several have attended to the “rescue” narrative built around Muslim women. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? finds its point of departure there as it analyzes the imbrication of this discourse with new forms of neoimperial humanitarianism. The specificity of Scott and Farris’s books lies, however, in their empirical and historical embedding in Europe.
For Farris, the discourse of the oppressed Muslim woman primarily serves to regulate female labor power, whereby “care work” becomes increasingly outsourced onto racialized female bodies. The rescue narrative is, in other words, symptomatic of a new racial division in the female labor force that is defended by a femonationalist convergence. Scott, on the other hand, takes this discourse as a starting point to examine a new configuration of secularism. The idea that secularism enabled the emancipation of women is not only an ahistorical claim, Scott contends, convincingly showing how modern secular states consistently draw on a privatization of the female body, but it is equally instrumental for a new Western Christian supremacist discourse that takes the idea of “sexualized individualism” as its new flagship. In both accounts, the Muslim woman appears as a passive figure who serves as ideological backdrop for a series of broader governmental transformations.
But what are we to make of another representation of the Muslim woman, one that does not simply corroborate the idea that she is oppressed and lacks agency, but which depicts her as a potential threat? Such a representation is observed by Scott but not explored very far. We find it, for instance, in the arguments around the prohibition of the niqab (face veil) in countries like France or Belgium. The niqab was not only understood as the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression (it was described by many as a “mobile prison”), but also as a provocation and, in some instances, a sign of support of terrorism.1 We also find it in the recent burkini debate, where the burkini is largely framed as a political ideology rather than an innocent bathing suit (an argument routinely made regarding the hijab, also). We find it, finally, in the representations of female terrorist fighters or supporters of jihad as “Black Widows,” such as female Chechnyan fighters or widowers of Al-Qaeda fighters like the Belgian-Moroccan Malika El Aroud. This moniker refers to their status as widows who are wrapped in their black niqab, but also to the infamous spider feared for its venom and for eating its male partner after mating.
The figure of the Muslim as a security threat is not new. It resonates with the Trojan horse or fifth column metaphors that routinely circulate among neoconservative and right-wing adherents of “Eurabia” theses. However, in the context of the war on terror and in response to the rapid succession of violent attacks on the continent since 2015, this figure seems to have gained new credence in broader circles—particularly through the immensely popular specter of radicalization and violent extremism.
In a recent intervention on the intertwinement of the racial matrix and the ecological crisis, Ghassan Hage reminds us of the image of the Muslim as a wolf, a consistent trope since the colonial period. The wolf exemplifies the animal that cannot be tamed, surrounded by an aura of mystery and threatening for this very reason. In a similar vein, Hage contends, it is this necessity of domestication and governance (in the biopolitical sense), and the anxiety around it, that is at the heart of contemporary racist discourses in general, and Islamophobia in particular. The Muslims appear as the “ungovernable other,” whose presence on the continent unsettles existing racial hierarchies and the established sense of Europeanness.
Can the Muslim Witch Be Secularized?
Yet, there is a particular gendered twist to this story, for the Muslim woman is not so much a wolf than a witch. The potential “threat” that might arise from her is not physical. Rather, the threat resides in her ability to pass, her relative innocence, and in the potential pact she might conclude with the devil (i.e., the Islamist).
Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tens of thousands of women were physically exterminated on accusations of having concluded pacts with the devil. Witches were seen as manipulative seducers who could wreak havoc on their societies and who deserved physical extermination on that ground. Witchcraft accusations, anthropological and feminist scholarship teaches us, are symptomatic of social transformation and the uncertainty that accompanies it. One of the important contributions of Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch has been to connect the history of witchhunts with the early-modern, post-feudal restructuring of European societies and the establishment of a new biopolitical regime that reduces women to their reproductive role. Witches, so the argument goes, are understood as rebels who withstood this new economy of (reproductive) labor, and witchcraft accusations are attempts to contain this rebellion.
Farris seems to argue in a similar line in her attempts to propose a political economic reading of the current debate on Muslim women. Yet, in Farris’s account, Muslim (and migrant) female bodies are primarily captured as passive and docile actors, instrumental to the neoliberal restructuring of the market. In many cases in Europe, however, the Muslim woman appears—like the witch—as a hyperactive, cunning figure.
In difference to her male counterpart, who is treated early on with suspicion, spatial segregation, police violence, and expulsion, the European Muslim woman inhabits an ambivalent place: she is neither “in” nor entirely “out.” And different than the women in Muslim majority societies, the European Muslim woman is not primarily apprehended as the symbolic carrier of a tradition or a nation. She is, rather, explicitly divorced from her community and approached as an individual, or at least a potential individual.2 She is the (potential) poster child of the Republic, who attracts all the charitable energies of modern, secularized, Christian pastoral power. She is akin to what Mayanthi Fernando dubs the “exceptional citizen”: her unveiled body is evidence of the universalizing potential of the Republican mission and its capacity for a secular union.3 Yet, all the hope that has been vested into the integration (saving) of the Muslim woman also endows her with an enormous power: her actions serve as evidence of the redemptive force of the secular. This is why her “turning to Islam” is not only a disappointment, but even—as the case of Mennel shows—a treason.
The entanglements between the “saving” and “taming” discourses are therefore an invitation to not only consider the Muslim woman’s body as a central surface of Europe’s racial and secular biopolitics—as both Farris and Scott do in their books—but also to inquire into how these attempts are consistently challenged and resisted by the subjects themselves. The various measures affecting the Muslim woman (e.g., the headscarf prohibitions, accusations of extremism) are instruments to discipline her in the etymological sense of the word (punishing), and to put her “back in her place.” Forcing her to unveil or isolating her from society: these are the desperate measures of the State in its attempt to tame her.
See Moors, Annelies. “The Dutch and the face-veil: The politics of discomfort.” Social Anthropology 17, no. 4 (2009): 393-408 and Fadil, Nadia. “Asserting State Sovereignty: The Face Veil Ban in Belgium.” In The Experience of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law, edited by Eva Brems, 251-262. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.↩
See in this context also Bouteldja, Houria. Les Blancs, Les Juifs et Nous. Paris: Editions la fabrique, 2016. (In particular the chapter, “Nous, les femmes indigènes.“) English version translated by Rachel Valinsky is now available as Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love. South Pasadena: semiotext(e), 2018.↩
Mayanthi Fernando speaks of “exceptional citizens” to describe secular Muslim women (through figures such as Fadela Amara) who have responded to the hail of the Republic, yet remain bounded by their “difference.” See Fernando, Mayanthi. “Exceptional citizens: Secular Muslim women and the politics of difference in France.” Social Anthropology 17, no. 4 (2009): 379-392.↩