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Rokhaya Diallo: Race, religion and feminism in France

The French activist talks to Al Jazeera about religion, gender and state-sponsored racism in today’s France.

Rokhaya Diallo is a French activist, feminist, filmmaker and writer. A long-time anti-racism campaigner, she has found herself at the centre of a debate about racism and free speech in France.

Last year, she was forced to step down from the government’s Digital Council – an incident that only served to reinforce her belief that France has a problem with state-sponsored racism.

The government was asked by people who disagree with my views to evict me from the council,” Diallo says.

The fact that I was tackling racism, state-sponsored racism, that I was supporting Muslim women who wanted to wear the hijab…, basically it was those views and the way I frame my views on racism in France [which led to the removal].”

When I say there is racism from the French institutions, I am not saying that all the French people are racist, I am just saying that the state should implement measures to stop that.

by Rokhaya Diallo

Diallo has been very vocal about police profiling and the fact that not all French citizens are treated equally by the state.

“The state doesn’t even deny the fact that the police is over-controlling black people and Arab people and Muslim men. So to me that means there is nothing that is done to prevent that…. France isn’t doing anything to protect its citizens of colour from police brutality and police profiling,” she says.

“When I say there is racism from the French institutions, I am not saying that all the French people are racist, I am just saying that the state should implement measures to stop that.” 

Despite her dismissal from the Digital Council, Diallo still believes French President Emmanuel Macron could affect positive change in the country.

“I think that he does have a more inclusive vision of France because he belongs to a different generation, compared to the former presidents, so the way he sees France is actually very different because he is used to see[ing] France with a more diverse face,” Diallo says.

As a Muslim and the daughter of Senegalese and Gambian parents, Diallo says that her prominence as an activist and journalist, frequently featured on French television, has been an exception to the norm in France.

“If you watch French TV, you don’t see that many faces looking like mine, and today I really consider that a privilege and I try to use that privilege to tackle racism because I know that many of my fellow French citizens who are not white are not as lucky as I am and don’t have the means to be vocal and make public the statements [that I do].”

Speaking out has brought Diallo considerable backlash, particularly when discussing controversial issues such as religion.

I really think there is hope. If I was not hopeful, I would not be an activist.

by Rokhaya Diallo

While she supports France’s hallowed separation of church and state as “a very, very good principle”, Diallo has been vocal in saying that the country’s strict laws prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in public are problematic, particularly when they concern schools, where, as of 2004, children are not allowed to wear religious symbols such as crucifixes or headscarves.

“To me school is a place where you can learn about diversity and it’s important that the teacher shows neutrality, but the students don’t have to be bound by such measures because they are not in contract with the state.

“It places the heads of schools in a very, very strange place because they have to guess the religion of certain students because if a black student wears a headscarf, is it religious? Is it cultural?”

Diallo has also spoken out against France’s controversial ban on face-covering veils, which came into force in 2011. 

“To me it’s a very patronising way of seeing women to say ‘ok, to us, freedom means being dressed in [a certain] way and we will help you Muslim women to understand that freedom is uncovering, and we will even force you to uncover to make you understand that all feminism is like that. It’s very ethnocentric and very post-colonial feminism to me.”

Asked about the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, she says it’s major progress, “even a turning point…. because [for] women to say and to be vocal about the harassment that they are exposed to every day…. it was not something that was very public, it was something women used to speak about behind closed doors, but it was not public.”

Despite her criticisms of the state of affairs in France today, Diallo remains positive about the future.  

“I really think that there is hope,” she says. “If I was not hopeful, I would not be an activist and I would not try to work on those issues.

“There is hope, there is a new generation that is coming who are starting to be vocal, to raise awareness on issues that didn’t used to be mentioned before, so that fact that we are speaking … about France and race, me as a black woman in the public sphere tackling those issues, even if it’s not easy every day, to me, it is a sign of change.”

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