Rainbow Mac and Cheese and my thoughts on privilege and racism

I am saddened that in the 21st century this nation has not made more progress into equality and basic needs for all people.

Having visited different countries in the industrialized and in the developing world, having studied the history of colonialism and prejudice in Francophone Africa, the basic reality that as humans we continue to judge each other and care for ourselves and our own whole ignoring the pain of our neighbors pains me.

I have studied France’s relationship with its colonial history and its institutionalized prejudice against Muslims as a critical theory model for what I see with American imperialism and what I see with our own world legacy of hatred.

Race always enters into these studies because the African American experience shares a lot of commonalities with the French of Muslim Descent community; neither population asked to be enslaved by an empire. Yet, both populations are now belittled and mistrusted by their historical populations.

And both populations are judged and denied opportunities based on their appearance, on something genetic.

It’s so sad.

It’s 2020, America. We have outdated social classes, corrupted government systems, unsustainable consumption, unattainable educational opportunities, a capitalistic drive that values the work over the person, and a healthcare system that threatens our financial wellbeing more than it helps.

So it’s hard.

And I am fortunate to be white. But I am a woman, and I am a woman with a disability, so I understand the lens of judgment. I live every day wondering if I will be judged inferior or incapable because I walk a little funny.

But at least I don’t have to live every day in fear that I may be perceived as dangerous, or manipulated into a situation where I am suddenly an enemy merely because of the color of my skin. I won’t be killed for being dark skinned and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or near the wrong people.

It’s so sad that some of the best, most helpful people I know have to live in this reality.

That Black men have to swallow their fear.

That Black parents have to hope their sons come home.

That people with power

  • whether the power of law (the criminal justice system which favors the white),
  • the power of occupation and authority (police officers, prison guards),
  • the power of messaging (advertising, media, even entertainment)
  • or the power of mass control (our government and the systems perpetuated by it)

can continue this nonsense of us against them is a classic battle of the “haves” and the “have nots.” It’s really time you listened to your mama and started to share.

Anyway, on a much lighter note, I made macaroni and cheese for the teenager.

I used rigatoni and made a sauce of mostly cheddar and 1% milk, with a chunk of Monterey Jack and a chunk of dill havarti.

I put the rest of my fresh spinach in there, put some smoked paprika, purple peppercorns, and smoked provolone on top and it was amazing.

I called it rainbow macaroni and cheese which got me thinking of the larger racial and prejudice issues.

And that made me sad.

But I did have a very heartening conversation with the teenager today. She’s cleaning her room because, as she told me, she needs to get her act together to be able to help me more.

Indochic— Target’s New Home Line celebrates colonization or as they call it, “French-Vietnamese fusion.”

My husband and I started brainstorming our weekly household needs and while he worked on meal planning and a grocery list, I opened the Target app on my phone to see if they had any amazing deals on things we needed. We all know a trip to Target is dangerous and needs to be carefully and cautiously plotted.

Otherwise, the money can disappear.

I immediately found myself drawn to this luscious teal blue chair.

I mean, I seriously see this chair as part of the renovations to our master bedroom here.

But then I read the description: “Indochic: Think French-Vietnamese fusion, full of elegant shapes and sophisticated jewel tones.”

Now, this is my version of when people cry sexism when parents put little girls in clothes that focus on cuteness or certain traits our society sees as feminine. Like the t-shirts that say “I’m too pretty to do homework” or something like that.

“Indochic” is the exploitation and the ignorant perpetuation of the stereotypes that allowed colonialism and the “civilizing mission” to destroy cultures. If you understand my outrage… Well, may the sun shine upon you. We are kindred spirits. If not, let me see if I can calm down and rationally explain the root of my indignation.

First, let me start with the term “Indochic.” It’s a play off of the term “Indochina,” a strongly European word describing the region between India and China. The term became prevalently used in the 19th century and eventually referred strictly to the French colony of what is now Vietnam.

The French called its colony in the region “Indochine” so already Target has managed to make a playful pun, and a French pun at that by combining the French term “chic” with the prefix “Indo.” It’s Indo-great! Indo-cool!

Now, let me rant about the idea of “French-Vietnamese fusion.” The mix of French and Asian style occurred when the French colonized this region. I am no expert on French colonization in Asia, so I can’t address this in depth. But let me offer a few ideas.

Any fusion between the French and the Vietnamese was not voluntary. So should we celebrate it?

Is a pun like “Indochic” okay because the reference dates to the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century? Is it a forgotten pain? Can it be compared to referring as certain styles as “urban” as opposed to African-American? Would people feel differently about this type of style if the ad featured an Asian woman and a French man?

What I also find interesting about the concept of Indochic, French-Vietnamese fusion connects to my interest in miscegenation. The French developed strict plans for breeding between the civilized French man and the indigenous woman. In French Indochina, French men in the colony were encouraged to make local women their concubines specifically to purify and civilize by producing children with Frenchness.

But remember, the women in these unions would come from poverty by French standards and would be servants or laundresses to their colonial master before they caught his eye. Young native women and older French men, the women unable to say no because of the power exchange.

In colonialism, native cultures lose their land and their resources to the more powerful nation. Their men lose the chance to earn their own living. People who had independent lives become dependent on a foreign system. Tradesmen become servants. Women become housekeepers and sex objects. Native traditions and languages bend, twist and often break or are forced broken by the more powerful, dominant presence.

So when we advertise a sophisticated, elegant French-Vietnamese fusion and give it a cutesy name, we are perpetuating the idea that the cultures on the peninsula between India and China did not have anything to contribute to the world before the French came along and subjugated them.

It’s not Indochic. It’s not cool. It’s contemporary Orientalism.

If anything it’s Asian-influenced French design. Influenced. Because fusion implies an intentional attempt to blend two strong styles.

Facing modern Orientalism in Lalla Essaydi photographs at Lafayette College

This is the final week to see Lalla Essaydi’s photographs at the Williams Center for the Arts gallery at Lafayette College.

This seven photograph exhibit takes a journey into contemporary Muslim women’s space while exploring traditional Orientalist beliefs, otherwise known as Western stereotypes of the Muslim/Arab experience.

Immediately, I recognized these themes in Essaydi’s photography. My previous exposure both academically (my interest in post colonial Francophone Africa, how it intersects with the Muslim world, and the impact these topics have on contemporary international politics) and via travel in Africa and the Middle East came rushing into my head like a lost dream you fight to remember upon waking.

This exhibit features five photographs that use white/beige colors, Arabic writing, henna and women in various levels of religious covering and two photographs more steeped in color.

The seven photographs come from three different series: Converging Territories, Harem and Bullets. Just reading those titles should leave a certain taste in the mouth. I have with me an exhibit guide but I haven’t referred to it yet as I prefer to digest the works on my own first.

The first piece one encounters in the exhibit is 2004’s Converging Territories #24, featuring a woman’s face, only eyes showing, with writing on her face and the cloth covering her. The chromogenic print mounted on aluminum divides the woman’s face into four panels, each an almost even display of skin, lettering, and beige fabric.

This one did not attract or impress me. That is not to say it does not present a strong harmonious image. It is certainly a lovely piece of artwork, but artwork often speaks to the viewer in unique ways and this one seemed what one would expect from an exhibit like this.

Next came Harem #2 (2009). Instantly, I noticed the use of the term harem and the mimicry of traditional Orientalist images prevalent in I believe it was 19th century Western paintings capturing a fantasy of what Western/European artists expected the Muslim/Arab lifestyle to be.

The Harem series uses more color, more texture, and repeats the Orientalist themes of a reclining woman in exotic dress. The repetition of these stereotypical themes used by a Muslim female photography made me bristle. But this woman is propped on one arm and seated rather proudly so I sense the challenge to the age-old idea of the Middle Eastern harem.

Next, I found Bullets #3 (2003). The woman  in this photograph has a sassy shoulder turned to the camera. She is covered, but showing more flesh than normally proper throughout the arm. The backdrop is all bullets as if they were tiles on the wall, bullets also adorn her clothes. Another stunning photograph, but frankly I grow tired of the constant obsession of the Muslim identity automatically connecting with terrorism. I’m sure that’s Essaydi’s point, too.

I’m going to skip my favorite piece and turn instead to Harem Revisited #34 (2012). Perhaps this is the most colorful piece presented at Lafayette. It is three years newer than the other, and the woman’s pose in this one is not only more docile and reclined but divided into three panels, an immediate detraction from her humanity. She is reduced to pieces.

But the focal point of the exhibit (and my favorite), if I can proclaim that based on not only the fact that it was in my opinion very prominently displayed, is Converging Territories #30 (2004). [Featured image for this post.] It depicts, with the same beige clothing on beige background covered with writing and people decorated with henna, four females standing side by side in various levels of garb.

The largest woman, whom appears to be the only adult in the group, is completely covered head to toe. I can’t even refer to it as burqa as she doesn’t even have a slit or a screen for her eyes. I see them as a family, and the next one is in more traditional burqa and appears to be an adolescent. The next girl, a sweet looking pre-teen, has her scarf tied under her chin, exposing her whole face but not her hair. The last little girl has no head covering.

What I adore about this photograph is the vivid use of the progression of covering as it follows a woman through various stages of life and suggests not only the typical message of how a woman’s identity is limited by strict forms of covering, but also attaches this idea to the act of mothering and potentially makes it more universal. To me, the suggestion is that all women lose a part of their identity as they transition into a maternal role. This has nothing to do with religion.

If you miss the exhibit at Lafayette, a similar exhibit runs through May at the Trout Gallery of Dickinson College.

About Lalla Essaydi: According to the exhibit guide, she grew up in Morocco, raised her family in Saudi Arabia, and lived in both France and the United States. She received her arts education from prestigious art programs in both France and the United States.

Road Trip, Djibouti style 

When we returned to Djibouti City from Mogadishu (last weekend), we booked a trip with Bambu Service Touristik to visit Lac Abbé on the Ethiopian border.

African road trips are precarious. You have the crazy drivers, lack of petrol stations, dessert roads and rocky roads and a general lack of, say, signs. 

A straight drive from Djibouti, Lac Abbé is probably a three or four hour drive depending on conditions. We had several stops booked into our day.

I was extremely excited about this trip, because Lac Abbé is traditionally Afar nomad territory. Djibouti, as a country and former colony of France (granted independence in June 1977), has two traditional ethnic groups (among a host of others): the Issa Somali, with connections to Somalia and Somaliland, and the Afar, who hail from/migrate to Ethiopia (and I believe Eritrea).

I had just returned from a three day visit to Mogadishu. Mogadishu had opened my eyes to the influence of Somali culture in Djibouti. As soon as I returned to the streets, I recognized the food for sale. And now I could go see the Afar region.

As a student historian, I was thrilled.

As you drive into the countryside, you need more improvised structures. Often small huts made from the volcanic rock, sticks, corrugated metal and other recycled objects. Tires are the fence of choice.

Homes often have tires fencing in little yards…

Along the route we saw a lot of cylinders and it turns out there’s a big water infrastructure project underway to bring water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. 

Again, big news for a small country with no natural resources. 

Our guide built a coffee stop into our trip and M and I do love coffee. I had forgotten how much I love tea in this area of the world. I think their secret is boiling the sugar into the water before adding the tea. Though I’m not sure. I don’t like sweetened tea other places.


making our coffee

  She poured our coffee from her thermos bottles and when people paid her, she tossed the coins in a basket under her little table.

coffee and tea


other patrons having coffee

Our next stop was the town of Ali Sabieh. That will be my next topic. 

The Beauty of Djibouti

Day Five.

The time passes by so quickly, with each day bringing some sort of adventure. It could be simple, like the juice bar at Cafeteria Sana’a not having the ginger juice tasted on the initial visit and trying first mango, then cantaloupe, and also lemon-mint on each subsequent stop. Some adventures are frustrating, like when several atm machines refuse to give you money and the tourism agency and official money brokers have different ranges of American dollar bills they will accept. Remember when the United States added all those colors to our boring green money? Well, Djiboutians don’t like old money. Some adventures are hysterical, somehow causing the hotel room chair to fail when sitting.

The environment remains fascinating. People are surprised to see American tourists here. Not surprised to see Americans as we have quite the military presence. French workers and military are here, in addition to a Japanese base, though I have seen only a few French families (late in the evening in the classy restaurants) and no Americans nor Japanese.

The heat (90 degrees F) and humidity (85%) have not bothered me, and I feared it would be unbearable. I have consumed 2-3 liters of water a day. The town shuts down from 1-4 every day to keep everyone from melting. So this is our quiet time where we have snacks from the grocery store, drink more water, sit on the patio (fans blazing), M smokes, and then we return to our hotel room to cool.

Breakfast is croissant or other bread with coffee. Mid-morning we typically stop for juice. Yesterday we had lunch, primarily because we did a tour excursion to Lac Assal and the guide handed it to us. For dinner, we tried the pizzeria in the hotel (where the staff works very artfully on the product though they should have cooked it longer). Then we visited an Indian restaurant recommended by another hotel guest. That place had a delightful ambiance from the moment we entered. Le Santal features Indian and Chinese cuisine and pizza, the international food. (We returned there a second time, prompting the owner to chat with us and give us baklava.) Next, we had Ethiopian, another wonderfully decorated place, but neither M nor I really favor Ethiopian cuisine. With the broken right hand, it presents a bit of a hand-eating challenge. That said, tonight we shall delve into Djiboutian.

I am positively stunned by the geography, especially after our trip to Lac Assal. We would both like to go to Lac Abbé but are reluctant due to the ten hour drive. Tomorrow we will trek to Ile Moucha. Yesterday we visited a variety of places along the way to Assal. I will hopefully break those down later. I would like to save that for the photos and after I pick up a Djibouti book I saw in the store. Except I needed about 6,000 Djiboutian Francs and I only have 4,000 and the ATM refuses to give me money. By the time we figured that out, the shops had closed for 1 p.m. break. The book will at least provide correct spellings.

The tour guide, driver and company did a fantastic job with our excursion. If you are every in Djibouti, call Daniel Jean at Bambu Service Touristik. What I enjoyed, in addition to breathtaking scenery and warm water pools and the salt lake, was seeing the breakdown of how people live. You can see areas of Djibouti-ville that seem like your average developing (“third world”) city, and then there are areas for industry (I passed the big Coca Cola plant, one of the main employers here) and I’d like to believe we drove by some lovely French villas walled off from the rest of the city. In that respect, colonial ideals may still be in full bloom.

The roads are primarily straight. Road signs point to major cities or even the next country. Nomad villages are everywhere, as people move to find water. In some places, the huts are made of wood and metal, others sticks and tarps, and yet in what I assume are the more stable villages, the nomads take the volcanic rock and build their shelters. Because of the severity of drought here (and even our hotel often has water shortages when you turn on the faucet and nothing comes out), some international aid agencies (I believe Japanese UNICEF is one) have started delivering 50 gallon drums of water to these villages.

We ate lunch near the Salt Investment Company at Restaurant Randa (though we packed, courtesy of the tour) which was in the middle of, if I remember correctly, an Afar nomad village. Cats dined with us and of course goats meandered by. Goats are a major cattle animal here. No agriculture and minimal greenery. Goats are perfect for meat and milk and as everyone knows, they eat everything. Camels also, and occasionally donkeys, but not among the families near Restaurant Randa. (I also assume that the men work at the salt operation.)

I had the opportunity to use the nomad toilet facility, which while primitive by Western standards, was quite nice and included a bucket of water and water bottle scoop for cleansing. I mention this because I think it’s very important to understand that nomadic people don’t have a lesser existence than we do. Sometimes I fear that Western ideas of international development focus too much on issues like infrastructure and unemployment and not enough on basics like clean water and education.

The Afar nomads may not have jobs, electricity or running water, but why do they need it? They follow the rain and the water to feed and care for their cattle. Disease and malnutrition are of course serious for any society, especially among people with so little modern resources. But I envy one element of their simple existence: they have survival skills that I can’t fathom. If suddenly my bank cards, car, refrigerator and two-story house disappeared, I would have no clue how to build my own shelter out of sticks and stones. I could probably care for a goat, but slaughter it? No clue. Who, in the end, will endure?




The cat photo is from the restaurant, but the black stone structures in the background are homes.


And the facilities…



En route: Preparations for Djibouti

The preparations for a voyage are perhaps as much of the “experience” of a trip as the actual travel. Passport photos, visa applications, daydreams of what itinerary you might want and packing a suitcase frame the essence of what the trip will be.

My traveling companion, M, whom I’m sure you’ll hear more about later, he reads the tourism guides, speaks the languages and books the hotels and modes of travel. I do silly things like fuss over shoes, shop for a new journal, and read books.

Thank goodness I got my new 2×2 photos when I did. The same day I visited the local CVS (poor new employee couldn’t load the batteries in the camera, use a memory card or figure out the photo machine— the store manager had to do it himself) I fell walking the kids home from school and took a chunk out of my chin that probably should have received stitches. The last of that scab fell off last night.

When M and I started planning this trip, he originally considered Mauritania. I took Nina Sovich’s new book, To the Moon and Timbuktu, from the college library (on my husband’s card). In the book, Sobich follows her father’s use of Timbuktu as a reference during her childhood and her own appreciation of Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa to embark on her own journey in the region. She travels alone, in part to soothe her own marital restless and as homage to her Swedish mother who loved the African continent.

I read Kingsley myself 20 years ago in college. I still have the book and may reread it before embarking on my adventure, though we are no longer visiting Mauritania. Many of our destinations are decided by the availability of seats on airplanes and Djibouti proved logistically more feasible. This greatly excites me as I have wanted to see Djibouti for almost four years.

M thinks I’m crazy. It’s beautiful country, with a shortage of water, a small piece of land (the size of Massachusetts) carved out by the French colonial empire. As I type this, it’s 10 p.m. and 90 degrees. The French have abandoned Camp Lemonnier and the majority of their FFDj presence to the Americans, who are there to fight terrorism in the Middle East. Between piracy, terrorism and even cyber security, Djibouti’s strategic location on the horn of Africa has made it a garrison town for Western Europe, the United States and even the Japanese.

I can list many reasons why visiting Djibouti appeals to me. It received its independence from France in 1977, which means this country is younger than I am. It’s an artificial/crossroads kind of country. It didn’t develop organically but due to western involvement. It once served as the largest overseas French military operation. After the loss of the Algerian colony, while France still conscripted its young men into national service, thousands of French men spent a year here. The geography is supposed to be some of the most unique and breathtaking terrain (and most inhospitable but yet inhabited) in the world.

My husband thinks I’m crazy. Like Sovich’s spouse he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the bizarre. My daughter has started her own travel memoirs and says some day she will visit Africa. I hope she does.

One month from today, I will board a plane for Paris and thus will begin my travels in East Africa.


Excerpt: Orphans and French Masculinity in the Interwar Era

This is an excerpt/introduction from a paper written for a seminar at Lafayette College, taught by Joshua Sanborn, inspired by a class taken at Moravian College, taught by Jean-Pierre Lalande.


Angel Ackerman
History 353 Gender and Sexuality in Modern Europe
May 12, 2009

When researching French masculinity, it quickly becomes apparent that on some level every stereotype—the seducer, the adulterer, the drinker, the connoisseur, the philosopher, the artist, the swordsman, the braggart—bears truth.  (1) In fact, various scholars have agreed that Cyrano de Bergerac, “…swashbuckler, poet, unsophisticated lover and universal character; the most accomplished expression of gallantry for Frenchwomen,” serves as an icon of nineteenth century
French maleness on the cusp of modern martial masculinity. (2)

But manhood, and many social institutions, would undergo great change throughout Europe as science—beacon of hope at the end of the 1800s, a great force to improve the quality of life— created weapons that would decimate many parts of France and inflict upon all European nations a brutal loss of life previously unimaginable.  The devastation permanently altered the social, political and economic landscape in Europe.  The battles of World War I slaughtered nine million
men, with one-third of them leaving a widow and average of two children.  In France, the Great War robbed 700,000 children of their fathers and more than a million “wards of the state,” a term that could mean either orphan, child without father or child of a permanently disabled man.  With about 1.5 million men dead, an entire generation in France grew up without a father (3)(which would make them orphans as the French orphelin means simply “child without father” unlike its
English equivalent).

In the midst of this fatherless phenomenon, French masculinity shifted shying farther from traditional martial masculinity even as the country sought to restore its former paternalistic glory. Literary themes of the early twentieth century and interwar era discuss the societal struggles caused by absent father figures, floundering government and the threat posed by neighboring Germany, but how does the generation of fatherless boys contribute to France’s changing expectations for men?  Did French war orphans fit the traditional male gender roles or did they become “a pampered bunch of wimps” from single-parent households led by women? (4)

With this in mind, one potential answer to whether or not single mothers reared a generation of wimps is this:  It was neither the absence of paternal role models nor the actions of French mothers that created a generation of men who would not subscribe to martial masculinity of the previous age.  A societal backlash against the sufferings of the Great War caused this shift, potentially exaggerated in war orphans because of their familial loss.  The orphan’s experience
served as an allegory for France as a whole as it dealt with altered masculine roles; fatherless orphans did not cause the change.

To examine this idea, one must establish a selection of men who lost their fathers in World War I.  This seems simple enough.  Search some prominent historical figures and politicians, seeking those born between 1905 to 1910.  I skimmed hundreds of biographies in encyclopedias, academic databases and even, in quasi-desperation, Wikipédia (French Wikipedia).  Articles in French yielded the best results, as could be expected, especially when searching terms like
“pupilles de la nation” (wards of the state) and “mères de deuil” (mothers in mourning).  But, with a limited time frame for this particular project, I could only locate two orphans to use as my case studies:  author Albert Camus and playwright/ actor Jean-Louis Barrault.

For Camus and Barrault, their status as orphans altered their interior attitudes regarding masculinity, not the behaviors that would define them.  War orphans cannot be blamed for the wimpish state of French manhood after the Great War, because the war had changed French maleness for the entire nation.  War orphans were one voice among many reacting to the loss of traditional masculine honor codes.  Barrault and Camus, like their artistic peers, lamented this
lack of masculine definition.

Of course, the experiences of two men do not lead to firm conclusions.  But these two men, thanks to their creative sensibilities, have contemplated these questions of what it means to have a father and what makes someone a man.  Raised in different family environments on different continents, these two men came to many of the same conclusions.  If coupled with the observations of significant playwrights of the Interwar era, the experiences of Camus and Barrault verify the cultural context of the 1920s and 1930s.  Orphans articulated the dilemma of shifting masculinity which continued into World War II with the French surrender.

(1) My title plays tribute to one of the World War I postcards featured in Marie-Monique Huss’ book, Histoires de Famille 1914-1918. (Paris: Noesis, 2000) Le petit poussin is the little chick on one postcard expressing his hope that he will one day become a great rooster of Gaul. (213)  Why the rooster?  According to the French president’s official web site (www.elysee.fr) The rooster is one of the symbols of the French republic because of its appearance on the coins of the Gauls. It is often used by foreigners today to represent the French in sporting events.  “Le coq apparaît dès l’Antiquité sur des monnaies gauloises…Il est surtout utilisé à l’étranger pour évoquer la France, notamment comme emblème sportif.”

(2) The quotes comes from Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: Bookking International, 1993). This quote comes from the back cover of an edition purchased in Paris in 1995: “Cyrano de Bergerac, héros au grand nez et coeur d’enfant, bretteur et poète, amoureux ingénu, est un personnage universel; c’est l’expression la plus accomplie du panache à la française.” Scholars who have cited him include Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) labeling Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of French panache, modesty, and swordsmanship (226) and Huss in Histoires de Famille calls him moral, elegant and displaying the appropriate war scars to be a proper French male (117).

(3) Olivier Faron, Les enfants du deuil: orphelins et pupilles de la nation de la Première Guerre mondiale, 1914-1941 (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2001), 13.

(4) The idea for this paper came from Jean-Pierre Lalande’s Twentieth Century French Theatre class at Moravian College in fall 2008. From my notes on Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, 22 October 2008: “Hémon- represente les hommes pragmatiques… ‘je ne vive pas sans elle [sic]’ ‘that’s totally stupid.’ stereotype of a spoiled young man. a né [sic] après la première guerre. 1920- pampered bunch of wimps- Hémon. No 45-year-olds in 1942. lost generation, les jeunes ne sont pas capable.”

Academic: Djibouti, still a ‘colony’? (2012)

The Republic of Djibouti: 35 Years of Nation-Building Yields International Pseudo-Colony

A nation the physical size of Massachusetts on the horn of East Africa, the Republic of Djibouti gained its independence from France on June 27, 1977. Its history and ethnic roots suggest that without European colonial conquest, Djibouti might be a part of Somalia or Ethiopia. In the thirty-five years since independence, Djibouti has struggled with political hegemony, civil war and lack of basic infrastructure or civic institutions— a poor educational system, little agriculture or readily available water, practically nonexistent healthcare and no sustainable economy.
Yet the Republic of Djibouti has one significant advantage, its geography. Although it’s barely visible on a world map, the country rests along the Bab el Mandeb, which translates from the Arabic as “the Gate of Grief,” between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Its only other potential resource is salt, primarily from Lake Assal, but salt exports are limited because of low iodine content. (1) The barren land is a brutal desert, often referred to as Hell on Earth (2), with average temperatures between 85 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Hanle plain, temperatures exceed 130 degrees, making it one of the of the hottest inhabited areas of the planet. (3)
Under French colonial control in the late 1800s, what is now the Republic of Djibouti became “French Somaliland” and offered a place to restock provisions for ships headed to far off locales like Réunion, New Caledonia or Polynesia. This is also the time of the Industrial Revolution, creating a need for Middle Eastern oil which drove the French to guard these pivotal waterways. By the dawn of the millennium, Djibouti’s location would attract not only the French, but also Americans, Germans, Japanese and European Union. Counterterrorism operations monitor the entire region from this spot—Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somali, and Kenya.
This is possible in part because the Republic of Djibouti has displayed much political stability since its independence. Despite this, the protests that affected Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria also hit the Republic of Djibouti where citizens called their government a puppet regime of the French and Americans. The government quickly broke up the movement and arrested opposition leaders and not much reached the American or European media. I stumbled upon short news articles about these protests and it made me question: how has the presence of American and French military forces influenced nation-building in Djibouti? In reading about people who have traveled there, studying the infrastructure and institutions, and following the political situation via the media, election results and foreign policy from the French and Americans, I conclude that this developing nation-state has not changed since 1977.
At the time of Independence, citizens of Djibouti recognized potential in their nation, expressed by Djiboutian treasury functionnaire Luc Aden:
“Think of our country as a baby born with a big head– the city of Djibouti–on a frail body…we must cure this. Then the baby takes its first steps, sometimes grabbing a hand to hold. But the child will walk on its own one day.” (4)

So far, those hopes have not materialized. Despite some of the highest foreign aid figures in Africa, the existence of basic infrastructure built by the French, a thriving port and trade hub, and the presence of a multitude of international entities, whether military or political, the Republic of Djibouti has made no real strides in nation-building and exists as a neglected pseudo-colony.
To explore this idea, I will provide a brief summary of the composition of the Republic of Djibouti’s population. I will then discuss the French historical and current interests in Djibouti, and then look at the American presence in the former colony. Both nations give tremendous amounts of aid, and my final section of this paper will show how despite Western financial support providing 12 percent of the government budget (5), nothing has improved for the bulk of the population. Between France, the United States and Saudi Arabia, Djibouti receives between $100 and $300 million in aid each year, which amounts to between $130 and $700 per person. (6)

Before French colonialism, two main tribes lived in the region that is present-day Republic of Djibouti. In the north, the Afar followed their herds into parts of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea. To the south, the Issa grazed into Somalia. The lack of water and arable land drove both tribes to nomadic existences, following their herds of primarily goats and a few donkey and camels. Their proximately to the Middle East led to trading in the area of what is now Djibouti City, where Arabs, for centuries, had been peddling wares and spreading Islam. The indigenous population is predominately Sunni Muslim.

By 1967, 10,255 Europeans lived in Djibouti. Of those, 7,655 were French. Of the French, less than 1,000 had lived in the colony for more than three years. The French population has always been highly dependent on the amount of soldiers stationed there, which at its height, was 10,000 men. (7)  In 1978, one year after independence, 250,000 people lived in the Republic of Djibouti, 49 percent of them Issa and other Somali, 39 percent Afar, six percent Arab and four percent European. (8) Today, of the 818,000 residents in the country, 60 percent of the population is Issa or other Somali and 35 percent are Afar. (9) Djibouti’s urban population has always included a myriad of citizens: French, Arab, Ethiopian, Greeks, Indians, Armenians, and Yemeni. (10) Understanding this population base helps explain the dominance of the Issas. In 35 years, Djibouti has only seen two presidents from the same political party, both Issa. This has plunged the country into civil war. Fighting escalated in the early 1990s, but the conflicts have never been resolved. In this environment, foreign actors build their bases and send aid.

For France, the dollar tally came to approximately 60 million dollars a year on Djibouti during its tenure as a colony, developing infrastructure like the train that transports most of land-locked Ethiopia’s goods and a water system that tripled the available water supply. Today France spends about $160 million, between foreign aid money, military aid and rent on its military presence, base hosting fees alone costing at least 30 million Euros per year. The presence of the Americans has forced France to increase payments by one-third. (11) France trains Djiboutian military officers and more or less founded Djibouti’s small military. The navy traces its origins to a cast-off French patrol boat and the Air Force began with an old French troop transport. (12) As for actual French soldiers on the ground today, in April 2011, the French had about 3,000 troops, the FFDj (Forces françaises Djibouti).

French objectives have not changed much in the last 125-plus years. The French have five main strategic interests in Djibouti: to protect oil tankers and navy ships entering the Red Sea, as a staging post between France and its Indian Ocean territories, intelligence gathering, as a forward base for multilateral military operations in the region, and a low-cost venue for desert warfare training.(13) Before the arrival of large scale American operations in 2003, Djibouti maintained its dependence on the French, “the country is propped up by French money, French soldiers and French cuisine” with 10,000 French citizens advising the government and influencing what the locals call “the fictional economy.”(14) The French never truly left:

“In Djibouti, one sees the last decaying remnants of the French in East Africa — the crumbling colonnades, the pitted grey walls, the street-signs in that peculiarly French shade of blue — and one hears it too, in that lovely flattened out African French.” (15)

The French may no longer be colonial masters, but their imperialistic influence and their presence still stands, and now it faces competition from the Americans.

The United States rents the former French Foreign Legion base Camp Lemonnier for at least $30 million a year. The rent has grown as the United States has expanded the facility. As the only official American military base in Africa, Djibouti hosts a variety of American entities: army, air force, navy, marines, Central Command’s Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation among them, plus a rotating American force of about 2,000 people with additional intelligence officers from foreign countries helping in counter-terrorism. (16) Other nations also have a military presence. American, French, African and cooperative non-military entities are based in Djibouti. (17)
The elevated population of foreigners make Djibouti a garrison town with a dual economy. Prices for goods and housing in the urban setting rival what one would expect from modern cities, yet the average Djiboutian cannot afford these things.

The statistics on the Republic of Djibouti summarize the economy nicely. Inflation rises between 3.8% and 7% per year. (18) Government expenditure accounts for almost 37 percent of the Djiboutian GDP. (19)”Spartan apartments” in Djibouti City average $1,000 a month, when the average annual income for a Djiboutian is $890 and real GDP per capita is $450. (20)
Opportunities for employment in Djibouti are few. Port traffic, especially for Ethiopian trade, feeds a large segment of the economy. Eighty-three percent of the shipments received in Djibouti City’s port heads to Ethiopia (21) which yields about $150 million in port fees each year. Going back to 1978, one year after the French ended colonial rule, trade with Ethiopia made $500,000 a month for Djiboutian customs, and that merely covered the goods carried by train (60 percent of Ethiopian foreign trade). (22)

In 1978, unemployment in the capital was 85 percent.(23) In 2007, that figure was 59 percent overall and 83 percent in rural areas. (24) In 1978, one main employer was Coca Cola, who still maintains a bottling facility in Djibouti today. The main economic activities post-independence stemmed from (in the order of importance) the port, the railroad, camels, cattle, goats and sheep. Current industry, other than Coca Cola, includes three other factories in Djibouti City, one for desalinating, one for ice making, and a plant that manufactures Popsicles and flavored drinks. The government is the primary employer, with the United States’ government as the second largest employer.

Black market activities have historically included the trafficking of obsolete European arms, drugs, slaves, and prostitutes. In 1997, an estimated 20,000 young Ethiopian prostitutes worked in the bars of Djibouti City alone. (25) For young men, piracy is a key activity.

The economic base cannot improve without changes in infrastructure, to increase water supply and the reliability of electricity. Much of the water system and the transportation system has not been maintained or improved since the French originally built it. The government owns and controls the only Internet service provider, phone company and cell phone provider. Electricity is unreliable and business owners who cater to foreigners usually have back-up generators if only to maintain their air conditioners for the comfort of their clients. Most of the indigenous population do not have or cannot afford electricity, while foreigners and elites spend an average of $500-$1,000 per month to cool their homes against the torrid climate. (26)

Even with improvements to these systems, Djibouti lacks a basic investment in its people. Medical care is practically non-existent, for people and for the animals that many Djiboutians rely on for their livelihood. The life expectancy for its residents is about forty-five. (27) Nearly three percent of the population has HIV/AIDS, though it could be higher because of the road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, a major route for HIV/AIDS, drugs, currency and illegal aliens.(28)
In 1978, 90 percent of the population was illiterate (29) which is a statistic frighteningly akin to the percentage of the population that was African, versus Arab or European. It is important to remember that the traditional languages of the nomadic Afar and Issa do not have written versions. The cultural idea of a written language was imported by the French.

Today about 73 percent of the adult population is illiterate, with not much hope of improving since only 43 percent of primary school aged children are enrolled and attending school. (30) Even for children in school, some have lost teachers because of problems with the delivery of salary. Until very recently, Djibouti had no universities. One recently opened. The skill level among Djiboutians is so low that even manual laborers must be imported. (31)

Lack of employment opportunities coupled with lack of education will make it impossible for Djibouti to end poverty under the current system. Abdourahmane Boreh, an opposition politician who used to work for Guelleh as head of the Djiboutian ports declares that it is time for a new political system in Djibouti, that the poor don’t have to get poorer, everyone can have water and electricity and that the economy can grow. (32) Guelleh has publicly renounced Boreh. (33) Yet, looking at the statistics, it’s hard to deny the merit of Boreh’s claims.

As of 2008, 75 percent of Djiboutians lived in poverty, 42 percent didn’t have enough food. (34 )There is another reason for elevated living costs, an artificially high Djiboutian Franc that has been pegged to the United States’ dollar since independence. (35) President Guelleh and his predecessor have invested in sectors that will return revenue to the state instead of devoting resources to education or economic diversification. (36)

Not much has changed for the population of Djibouti. Is this a case where colonialism could be seen as “good”? Or is it colonialism that stymied the growth of this land? Without colonialism, Djibouti probably would have been part of Ethiopia, since Ethiopia has the most power in the region, and surrounds most of the Djiboutian borders. They already have a reason to want Djibouti, and that’s the port. Life as an independent state has provided no improvements in access to water, electricity or education. It has allowed one ethnic group, the Issas, to dominate the other and to manipulate the political structure into a pseudo-republic. The so-called Republic of Djibouti has failed to develop even the most basic institutions of a nation. In the contemporary era, it has traded its French colonial masters to pit the French and the Americans against each other for financial gain. The ruling elite ignore the poverty and starvation among the masses.

Nation-building takes time, and building democracy presents even more challenges. The Republic of Djibouti modeled their political system after that of the French, but the Djiboutian system chose a first-past-the-post system that ended up reinforcing the hegemony of the ethnic majority. Clauses in the constitution had been designed to prevent this, asking the president to appoint a prime minister of the opposite ethnic group, but that never happened. The legislature does not have the power to oppose the president if they should suddenly disagree with his policies. In Djibouti, an attempt at opposition may never happen because:

The RPP [the president’s political party]… and its allies have been in control of the government since independence, winning not only every presidential election but also every seat in the 65-member National Assembly in every legislative election to date.  (37)

With one single political party representing one ethnic group controlling the government, Djibouti must focus on building a real democracy and not merely strengthening its elite. Sadly, the presence of the French and the Americans have provided funding and political legitimacy for a regime that may never push Djibouti far enough forward to build a sustainable economy and better quality of life for its citizens, but considering its harsh climate and low population, Djibouti’s borders appear an artificial construct and a remnant of the division of Africa by Europeans and not a naturally occurring community.

1 Enhanced Integrated Framework, United Nations Development Programme et al., in Djibouti: Integrated Framework Diagnostic Study of Integration Through Trade, p. ix

2 Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff in Djibouti and the Horn of Africa, page 3, and Charles Nicholl in Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91, chapter 18. Although Nicholl’s book focuses on recreating the travels of 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s in Africa, Nicholls visited Djibouti in the mid-1990s. He captures late 20th Century Djibouti through the lens of 19th Century colonialism and Rimbaud’s letters.

3 Jennifer N. Brass in “Djibouti’s Unusual Resouce Curse,” p. 525.

4 Marion Kaplan in “Djibouti, Tiny New Nation on Africa’s Horn,” p 533.

5 Interview of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh by journalist François Soudan, “Ismaïl Omar Guelleh : “En 2016, je m’en irai. Cette fois, je peux vous le jurer”

6 Brass 525

7 Thompson 35

8 Kaplan 520.

9 Berouk Mesfin, in “Elections, politics and external involvement for Djibouti,” p. 10 and Lange Schermerhorn in
“Djibouti: A Special Role in the War on Terrorism” p 50.

10 Thompson 34 and Nicholl 192

11 Brass 526

12 Kaplan 523

13 Mesfin 15

14 Nicholl 191

15 ibid 189

16 Mesfin 8 and Robert I. Rotberg in “The Horn of Africa and Yemen: Diminishing the Threat of Terrorism” p. 2

17  These include the American and French funded de-mining training center, the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (Rotberg 12) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a seven member regional organization composed of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. (Rotberg 11, 49) The Japanese, Germans, and European Union have military presence in the country, according to opposition politicians (djiboutiplan.com). USAID closed its mission in Djibouti in 1994, but reopened an office there in 2003 to administer specific projects (Schermerhorn 63). Voice of America has an Arabic-language radio station based in Djibouti (Schermerhorn 54). The United States reestablished an embassy in Djibouti in 2011 (http://djibouti.usembassy.gov/).

18 Mesfin 10, also Central Intelligence Agency. http://www.ciagov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/dj.html

19  Brass 535

20 ibid 535-536

21 Mesfin 13

22 Kaplan 525

23  ibid

24 Central Intelligence Agency.

25 As a transportation hub, Djibouti City attracts young people from Ethiopia hoping to escape poverty. For many young girls, prostitution becomes their livelihood. (Nicholl 177).

26 Brass 537

27 The most recent figure I found regarding life expectancy was 43  (Schermerhorn 51), though Brass cited 46 (p. 525) compared to the low (42) and high (51) of the Horn region (Rotberg 6)

28  Schermerhorn 51

29 Kaplan 519

30 Brass 538

31 ibid

32 Abdourahmane Boreh in “A letter from Abdourahmane Boreh,” http://www.djiboutiplan.com/manifesto-for-djibouti. This web site of RPP opposition politicians is available in English and French. English is not an official language of Djibouti. Those are Somali, Afar, French and Arabic. Use of English, in my opinion, is directed at the international community and not the indigenous population. Use of the web as a political tool could also be seen as directed at outsiders with Djibouti’s low literacy rates and the sporadic availability of electricity.

33 Guelleh said he’s sorry he ever made that appointment: “Et je Le regrette ! Son problème, c’est le business.” (Soudan)

34 Brass 525

35 ibid 535

36 ibid 528

37 ibid 531


  • Arteh, Abdourahim. “Protests hit Djibouti, opposition leaders held.” Reuters. February 19, 2011. http://af.reuters.com/article/topnews/idAFJOE7110EN20110219
  • Bezabeh, Samson A. “Citizenship and the Logic of Sovereignty in Djibouti.” African Affairs 110/441 (2011): 587-606 http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org
  • Boreh, Abdourahmane. “A letter from Abdourahmane Boreh.” Manifesto for Djibouti. http://www.djiboutiplan.com/manifesto-for-djibouti
  • Brass, Jennifer N. “Djibouti’s Unusual Resource Curse.” Journal of Modern African Studies 46/4 (2008): 523-545.
  • Central Intelligence Agency, “Djibouti.” CIA The World Fact Book. http://www.ciagov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/dj.html
  • Enhanced Integrated Framework, United Nations Development Programme et al. Djibouti: Integrated Framework Diagnostic Study of Integration Through Trade. World Trade Organization (March 2004). http://www.enhancedif.org
  • Jordan, Robert Paul. “Somalia’s Hour of Need.” National Geographic (June 1981): 748-755.
  • Kaplan, Marion. “Djibouti, Tiny New Nation on Africa’s Horn.” National Geographic (October 1978): 518-533.
  • Kohl, Larry. “Encampments of the Dispossessed,” National Geographic (June 1981): 756-775.
  • Malecot, Georges R. “Raisons de la Presence Française á Djibouti.” Revue française d’études politiques africaines 8/85 (1973): 38-53.
  • Mesfin, Berouk. “Elections, politics and external involvement for Djibouti.” Situation Report. Pretoria, South Africa: Institute for Security Studies, April 14, 2011.
  • Nicholl, Charles. Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  • Renou, Xavier. “A New French Policy for Africa?” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 20.1 (2002): 5-27.
  • Rice, Susan E. “U.S. Mission to the United Nations: UN Security Council Press Statement on Somalia,” emailed press release from United States Department of State, April 5, 2012.
  • Rotberg, Robert I. “The Horn of Africa and Yemen: Diminishing the Threat of Terrorism.” In Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, edited by Robert I. Rotberg. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. 1-22.
  • Schermerhorn, Lange. “Djibouti: A Special Role in the War on Terrorism.” In Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, edited by Robert I. Rotberg. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. 48-63.
  • Soudan, François. “Ismaïl Omar Guelleh : ‘En 2016, je m’en irai. Cette fois, je peux vous le jurer.’” Jeune Afrique, December 8, 2011. http://www.jeuneafrique.com/article/ARTJAJA2655p030-035-00.xml0/France-media-CPI-somalieismail-Omar-Guelleh-en-2016-je-m-en-irai-cette-fois-je-peux-vous-le-jurer.html
  • Spiegel, Justine. “Nouvel accord de défense entre Djibouti et la France.” Jeune Afrique. January 3, 2012. http://www.jeuneafrique.com/article/ARTJAJA2659p022.xml1
  • Supporters of Abdourahman Boreh. “A Reform Programme for Djibouti.” http://www.djiboutiplan.com.
  • Thompson, Virginia and Richard Adloff. Djibouti and the Horn of Africa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968.
  • United States Embassy in Djibouti. Official web site. djibouti.usembassy.gov/
  • Verjee, Aly. “A Friendly Little Dictatorship in the Horn of Africa: Why the World Doesn’t Care about Djibouti’s Autocracy.” Foreign Policy.com. (April 8, 2011). http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/08/_a_friendly_little_dictatorship_in_the_horn_of_africa?0,1.

Thesis: Civilizing Muslims

In spring 2013, I completed a second bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Lafayette College. As part of that degree, I opted to write an honors thesis on prejudice in colonial Algeria and how it continues in contemporary French-Muslim relations. As part of a contingent sponsored by Lafayette, I attended the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and gave a 15-minute presentation on my work.

Silly self portrait the morning of my NCUR presentation

Silly self portrait the morning of my NCUR presentation

My abstract can be read online here:



The Anti-Veil Laws Continue the “Civilizing Mission”

(from a 200-page thesis,



 by Angel Ackerman)

Islam has never been welcome in Europe.

                                        — Edward Said (1)

In 1827, a dispute arose between the dey of Algiers, a governing official from the Ottoman empire, and a French envoy sent to deal with a trade incident. Marseille port authorities confiscated two shipments of wheat from Algiers and never paid for them. The dey’s pirates had blocked the Mediterranean in retaliation. Three years later, the French military invaded and conquered Algiers, planting the first seeds of not only what would become Algeria but also the beginnings of a large-scale colonial empire.

The subjects in the colonies that formed the Second Empire never asked to be French. As work began on the Suez Canal in 1859 (as conceived by Napoleon Bonaparte more than 50 years earlier during the First Empire), Emperor Napoleon III conceived a French Arab empire from the Middle East throughout North Africa and drafted France’s first official colonial policy. This became the mission civilisatrice, the institutionalized nationalistic ideology where French leaders believed they could improve the lives of people in less developed countries by indoctrinating them with republican values. After all, the French had organized the concept of civilization and invented a word for it. (2)

The French believed civilization was the opposite of “barbarism,” the common way to think of non-Christians during the eighteenth century and that the universalism of French culture could assimilate these non-Christian populations. (3)

The French embarked on this mission to civilize, first in Africa, then in the Americas and Asia. The French marched into foreign lands, settled colons (French people who would live in the colony) in others, and redistributed property and resources primarily as forms of political reward and punishment. French officials perfected this process in Algeria.

Colonialism only works if the colonizer can label the colonized subject as inferior. In Algeria, the French settlers and officials used Islam as a primary reason why most of the indigenous Arab people could not be treated as equal and worthy of citizenship. For more than 100 years, the French reinforced stereotypes of Arab Muslims as an inferior race. Despite the loss of many French colonies in the mid-twentieth century, and the traumatic effects of the Algerian War for Independence in the 1950s, the imperialistic “civilizing mission” continues to perpetuate those same stereotypes in the twenty-first century, now applying them to Muslims (and “immigrants” who are actually the French born descendants of former colonial subjects) instead of indigenous Arab Algerians.

This project will expose the uneasy relationship between contemporary political reality and the Enlightenment-era values of the Fifth Republic by examining the intersecting points of religion and citizenship. The story begins with the French Revolution and the development of the Republican ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood and how they influenced the deconstruction of religious influence in French society. It continues looking at citizenship and religion in Algerian colonialism to the present to show how the current socio-religious cleavage in French society has heightened because of the Algerian War. In different terms, I’m asking whether French political institutions are using religion as an excuse to continue the civilizing mission, but this time within the hexagonal borders of the mainland. In this work, I show how politicians have extended the “civilizing mission” because of a failure to reconcile French losses in the Algerian War for Independence. This failure of reconciliation with the Algerian colonial past expresses itself in a desire for control over the Muslim veil, in addition to other prejudice against contemporary French citizens with roots in the former colonies.

To highlight the relationship between French citizenship and religion, I use a variety of sources to establish how the French elite viewed the Algerians. As colonial masters, the French establishment maintained visions of the inferior racial Arab throughout the colonial experience and into contemporary times. These stereotypes violated the republican values that French political documents claim as the keystone of society. What could be referred to as the French dichotomy of religion and citizenship, that a person cannot be true to the State and to God, plays a central part of my argument. From the dawn of the Enlightenment which strove to end the political influence of the Catholic Church and the subsequent development of laïcité, to the denial of native Muslim Arabs in the Algerian colony and the second class citizenship of Muslims in France today, French institutions have reinforced the belief that one cannot have strong religious values and be a good citizen.

In this project, I begin with ideas from a variety of leading scholars and researchers. Eugen Weber and Robert Nye have shown how the French institutions of the nineteenth century build proper Frenchman through the schools and the conscript army. Both the conscript army and the school system influence the Algerian experience and modern Muslim relations in France. Herman Lebovics and Todd Shepard tackle the relationship between decolonization and French national identity. Tyler Stovall discusses the colonial paradox within the French system, looking at how a nation dedicated to human rights and personal freedoms can colonize and subdue a native people as inferior. Alec Hargreaves and Paul Silverstein study the statistics, attitudes and conditions of multi-ethnic France in the twentieth century. Lawyer Jeremy Gunn has labeled French laïcité (secularism, or absence of religion in the public sphere) nothing more than a national myth with a violent history and uses his training to examine the laws. His interpretation of the French constitution(s) and the 1905 law coincide nicely with my previous work on the constitutionality of the anti-Muslim laws. Harry Judge looks at France’s history of universalism and assimilation with “the headscarf affair” as it affects the educational system.

Anti-colonial writers Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Memmi provide my work a framework of how colonialism changed societies. While the writings of these men emphasize the evils of colonialism and might be seen as minimizing the colonizer’s contribution to infrastructure, education and health in North Africa, I feel that while their depictions can be graphic and severe, they are good reminders of the weight of oppression under colonialism and therefore a representation of how the colonized viewed their colonial masters. Albert Camus, Ted Morgan and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber provide first-person accounts of the French experience in the Algerian colony. The latter two are journalists conscripted into the French army during the Algerian conflict.

While my training in feminist scholarships and women’s and gender studies is somewhat limited, I have relied on social scientists like Caitlin Killian, associate professor of sociology at Drew University interested in gender and immigration;  Marnia Lazreg, a French-Algerian sociologist currently teaching at Hunter College; Tricia Danielle Keaton, associate professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbuilt who specializes in questions of race identity; Emma Tarlo, anthropologist and fashion theorist; Lila Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist and the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia who specializes in the dynamics of gender and women’s rights in the Middle East; and Linda M. Scott, feminist scholar, to provide a framework for looking at the politics of dress and the veil.

The two laws in question that spur my interest are the 2004 law against conspicuous religious emblems in school and the 2010 law prohibiting facial covering in public. While each law sounds universal in its breadth, in reality, the incidents behind the laws stem from the relationships between Muslims and French society at large. Each law was sponsored by the center right political party, the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), and passed during a time when the UMP had a seated president, Jacques Chirac in the case of the former and Nicolas Sarkozy in the latter. To connect these laws to their roots in stereotypes against Arab Muslims forged during Algerian colonization, I believe one has to understand the multiple meanings of the veil, the development of French secularism, and the history of the Algerian colony to see how these three very different elements intersect in the Fifth Republic today.

The 2004 law prohibits conspicuous religious symbols or clothing in public schools, which theoretically covers everything from Jewish skull caps to Sikh headwear as well as the hijab (commonly a headscarf). The law traces itself to a 1989 incident to the suburb of Creil, north of Paris, where three girls of Moroccan heritage, ages 13-14, were asked to remove their headscarves in school and refused. The more recent law (2010) prohibiting facial covering, also applies to everyone but stems from a proposal for a ban suggested in April 2009 by André Gérin, the communist mayor of Vénissieux—a suburb of 60,000 near Lyon where half the residents are “non-French citizens or their French-born children.”

Anti-veil laws receive popular support from French voters. According to an April 2011 report on France24 television news, all the Muslims want is no longer to be stigmatized or used as an instrument of France’s political parties. (4)

The unidentified reporter who prepared interviews with many suburban Muslims noted, “between the fierce defenders of secularism and the political fights, the Muslims wish to live in full measure within the French Republic.” (5)

Many already do, by “adopt[ing] French cultural norms; they enthusiastically endorse republican values, including laïcité.” (6)

The 2004 law received 496 passing votes to 36 “no” votes in the National Assembly and by 276 to 20 votes in the Senate. The National Assembly passed the 2010 facial covering law passed 335 to 1 with the Socialists abstaining about 100 votes. The Senate passed the law in September, 246 to 1, with 46 Socialists voting for and the remaining 70 members also abstaining because of the perceived unconstitutionality of the ban. The lone “no” vote in the senate came from Louis Giscard-d’Estaing, the rightwing offspring of former president (and leader of the now defunct center political party, the UDF) Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. (7)

Louis Giscard-d’Estaing has since retired from politics.

At the heart of the UMP’s strategy for the future of Islam in France is the idea of transitioning the debate from one of “Islam in France” to the “Islam of France” within the boundaries of secularism. (8)

During the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, the UMP presented its plan to deepen the codification of secularism in society, which would give the laws regarding Muslims appropriate legal background. The rival of the UMP on the center-right, the MoDéms, has hosted public lectures on topics like Islam, democracy, pluralism, and the future of the Fifth Republic. MoDém founder François Bayrou, formerly (like the UMPs’s François Fillon) an educational minister during the time of the headscarf affair, had pushed the legislative and judicial powers to support the headscarf ban.

On the far right, Marine Le Pen of the Front National attacks the sincerity of the government and of the UMP in their defense of laïcité igniting “a big hogwash over nothing.” (9)

Le Pen believes that the government needs to outlaw public prayer and forbid the construction of mosques, which she claims are illegally funded, while also implementing a strict application of the 1905 law. (10)

On the left, the socialists refer to the UMP as making a “pseudo debate” that aims to continue the stigma against Islam. (11) Political parties recognize the importance of the Muslim issue and its cleavage within society, but a question remains of whether they wish to resolve it or maintain the status quo.

Before anyone can attempt to answer that large political question, it’s important to understand the veil itself and its origins. In chapter one of my project, I blend the ideas of Edward Said and Sadakat Kadri, whose 2012 book chronicled the history of shar’ia law from Islam’s origins to the present, to create a context of what the veil means in Islam. With this as a starting point, I move into the twenty-first century research of Killian, Lazreg, and Keaton for some context on what the veil means in France and North Africa. The interviews from these women with Muslims in France, and in Lazreg’s book also Algeria, balances the rhetoric of the politicians involved in the anti-veil laws.

The veil provides a case study of how the French are using one visible element of religion to perpetuate their colonial era stereotype that Muslims belong to an inferior race that must be civilized before attaining full citizenship or belong in society. Many women claim their veil as a religious act, but by wearing a veil in a Christian-influenced, secular society that has outlawed it, the Muslim woman in a veil has committed a political act, whether intentional or not. Jean-François Copé presents the argument of his political party, the center-right UMP, on how the veil prevents participation in French society. Popular “immigrant” musician Diam’s (half-French, raised in France by her French mother but born in Cyprus) highlights the discontent of immigrants and provides commentary on the immigrant view of current French politicians. These attitudes contribute to the disenfranchisement of immigrants and the colonially-descended population, separating them from mainstream society and driving them to a Muslim identity.

Contemporary French Muslim citizens form an ostracized population because they don’t fit within the French universalist ideals. Under the ideology of assimilation, a key strategy of the colonial empire, French universalist ideals demand that every citizen is the same. Having a visibly Muslim population clearly demonstrates that some citizens are different from the homogeneous majority. The attitudes in France today regarding Islam have deep connections with what happened in North Africa, but they also stem from the French mistrust of their own religion that developed in the eighteenth century. The embracing of the concepts of progress, logic, and freedom during the Enlightenment era ushered Europe into an era where men (and women) could challenge their leaders whether political or religious.

In chapter two, I chronicle the laws against the Catholic Church, examining Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas about religion and the common good. I study the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State (including Aristride Briande’s introduction) to understand the French institution of laïcité as a weapon against the Catholic Church. This chronology highlights the Enlightenment-inspired origin of the ideology that one cannot be a faithful religious follower and a proper citizen. The French government, in taking power from the Church, wanted to produce citizens that would be more loyal to the nation than to the Pope or clergy.

This religious history of France is important to understanding the French institution of laïcité, or secularism, and how it rules the public sphere. The term laïcité literally translates from French to English as non-religious or secular, but the French also have the word séculier that means secular. Laïc could be more similar to ecumenical.

I use laïc and secular interchangeably because of the appearance of the word “secular” in the official English translation of the 1958 constitution provided on the web site of the French National Assembly. I understand laïc to mean “non-religious” and I use “secular” and “secularism” to mean the absence of influence of religious institutions on the State and the absence of the influence of the State on the religious practices and beliefs of its citizens. Since the twentieth century and contemporary politicians in France cite secularism as part of the reason the veil must be regulated, understanding the roots of laïcité is the first step of showing why that is not the only ideological force at work in the argument against the public appearance of Islam.

With the historical background of secularism established, I look at the role of religion in the construction of the Algerian colony since the French believed they had a duty to civilize the inferior Muslims and replace the Arab’s communal, tribal society with a capitalist Christian one. In chapter three, I study the translated-by-the-French Arab Muslim oral tradition that attributed the success of the French conquest to punishment from God (Allah) for being bad Muslims in a decadent Ottoman Empire. One criticism the French had of their Arab Muslim subjects was that the Arab mind had a fatalistic acceptance of God’s will. Yet, to claim what is now modern Algerian required more than 40 years of fighting to come under French control. Starting in 1830 with the conquest of Algiers, the French stripped the natives of their rights, steal their land, and reinforce the notion that the Arab Muslims were inferior people. As the indigenous population received less to live on (less land, less resources, less food, less education), their deeper descent into poverty provided more evidence that they needed the French to civilize them. The “civilizing mission” could only be possible with the creation of certain stereotypes and prejudice.

The complex interplay of race and religion in the French colonial system created hierarchies of who was superior to whom even among various colonial subjects. This occurred across colonial borders, certain Africans were better than others, and across continents, the Asian immigrants of today are often seen as less trouble than their North African counterparts. In Algeria, the number of different ethnic groups and tribes within the colony created a hierarchy within that one colony.

The Kabyles were seen as most easily assimilated, because they did not lead a nomadic lifestyle. They built farms and served as artisans constructing the day-to-day goods that everyone needed. De Tocqueville supports this in his 1837 writings on Algeria, calling the Kabyles superior to the Arab because the Kabyles “are always sedentary; they cultivate the soil, build houses” and produce weapons and fabric.

Because of this perception that Kabyles could be more easily assimilated, most schools, especially in the early Jesuit-led efforts, were concentrated on Kabyle villages. In 1892, the Kabyle district of Tizi-Ouzou had about nine percent of the total Algerian population and almost 25 percent of all French-directed classes.

The French army also perpetuated a racial hierarchy. Known for his criticism of the French colonial system, Frantz Fanon, as a West Indian, experienced it first-hand: “The French army he joined was ‘structured around an ethnic hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top… North Africans at the bottom… Black colonial troops… superior to Arabs, and the position of West Indians… ambiguous in the extreme.’”

Algerian troops were segregated from European troops. Algerians were denied promotion to the rank of officers.

Even in the twentieth century, he colons, maintained a racist ideology that the Arab Muslim was simply not capable: “The Arab was not a Cartesian; he could not think rationally. His laziness and immorality were inbred. How could citizenship be granted to men who kept their women in bondage and had no notion of land ownership?”

Islam gave a basic structure for Arab society in what is now Algeria, providing law and guides of how to live, rules that governed marriage, dress, food and economics.

So while the French undertook the civilizing mission as part of their commitment to Enlightenment era values that everyone is the same, their actions in remained in juxtaposition to the post-1789 political policies that “avoided putting racial classifications into law” as part of their commitment to “‘sameness’ and universality.”

Instead of racial classification, the French focused on religion as the key to why the Arab needed to be civilized and why they could not have the same citizenship rights as the French colon, the Spaniard or the Jew. Religion became a racial classification. According to Dana Hale, French officials in the Third Republic classified the Algerian Muslim as an inferior breed of Caucasian.

In chapter four, I focus on post-World War II, the failure of the Fourth Republic and the creation of the Fifth Republic. At this time, the rise of Algerian nationalism had planted the initial seeds of the upcoming war for independence, and the French experimented with new policies that appeared to offer the Arab Muslims equality in society but still reinforced the same colonial era prejudice. My main political documents of this era are the preamble to the 1946 constitution of the Fourth Republic, the 1958 constitution of the Fifth Republic, memoirs (from French soldiers in Algeria and Albert Camus for the European colon experience) and anti-colonial writings of the time period (both colonial évolués like Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Frantz Fanon from Martinique but transplanted to Algeria, and Albert Memmi from Tunisia and Frenchmen like Jean-Paul Sartre). The violence that transpired during the Algerian War for Independence fueled the fear of Islam that continues in today’s France.

My fifth chapter ventures into the Fifth Republic, looking at scholarship about modern Islam in France, the anti-Muslim laws and other legislation, speeches from politicians and newspaper articles about current events. I use these English and French language materials and concepts to compare present-day French-Algerian relations to the interplay between colonists, Algerians and the mainland in the colonial era to suggest that there is minimal difference between how the French treated the indigenous population of the Algerian colony and the treatment of the Muslims in France today. In other terms, the “civilizing mission” is alive and well in the Fifth Republic.

French government institutions reinforce the idea that one cannot be Muslim and French, just as the legislation against the Catholic Church two hundred plus years ago claimed that one could not be Catholic and French. The majority of French citizens are not practicing Catholics, yet they are still steeped in Catholicism. Does the Muslim population have a similar situation? Many French Muslims identify as ethnically Muslim but not religious or necessarily practicing.

I have an interest in the former French colonies and France’s interaction with them, especially how former colonies have reclaimed or developed their own culture to include or renounce certain elements of French influence. In a world where the term globalization is frequently used to describe internal relations and cross-cultural economic influence, the experience of the French and their colonies might provide lessons on what happens to various political players as countries lose and gain status as “world powers” or in the case of the colonies, their independence. Since the French lost control of the colonial empire, they have struggled to maintain a stronghold over what they refer to as a Francophone African Union. This French involvement in former colonies and the French loss of influence as a large world power offers some warnings for the United States as American foreign policy pursues action in the Middle East. Neither country has found a way to extract itself from nor cooperate with these nations, that in some cases are Arab and Muslim, in some cases involved with groups labelled as terrorists, and yet in other cases, these are post-colonial holdings carved into artificial countries.

I approach this topic as a post-colonial critical theorist, hoping to examine the stereotypes and social mistreatments of Algerians in the past and in contemporary times and, with a constructivist bent, explore the attitudes of the French elite behind some of this anti-Muslim prejudice. The development of religious-based stereotypes in the colony of Algeria and their impact on the contemporary French population descended from the colonies provides a fascinating study of the intersection of racism with the history of religious persecution in France.

After the 1789 revolution, legislation crushed the Catholic Church by limiting its power, land ownership, the role of clergy and the place of religion in greater society. If French secular society stems from the post-revolutionary period and wanting to end the influence of the Catholic Church over the mechanics of running the Nation-State, then using the institution of laïcité in legislation targeting Muslims might imply that Islam has gained a foothold in the French political system today. That is not the case. In 2006, one percent of parliamentarians in France were Muslim when Muslims comprise about 8.25% of the general population.

Despite this use of the great French tenet of secularism, which appears in the constitutions of 1946 and 1958, this is not a simple debate about religion.

It’s about citizenship. It’s about national identity and reconciling a colonial past. The rules regarding citizenship and how those rules changed during and after colonialism offer no alternative to the monocultural, universalist vision of what it means to be French. Mainstream French society is unwilling to include their former colonial subjects as legally and culturally French. The Algerians (and other Maghreb-descended populations) challenge the stereotypical white (“European”), secular French identity. The North African descended residents of France are Arab and Muslim. The French government targets Muslims in an effort to legislate away their difference. While one part of the issue certainly revolves around what it means to be French, there remains a question of how religion can exist in Fifth Republic France.

The French have claimed that one cannot be a true believer and serve the Nation-State. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would say this causes a conflict between what God wants and what society requires. Can you be a good citizen and be true to your religion? Perhaps an answer to this lies in more questions. What role does religion play for Muslims in France? Is religion for Muslim citizens in France about a connection to a higher power and morality code or is it about a connection to a familial history? In the case of veiling, are these women searching for belonging? Racism and discrimination against Arabs are common in France, so has French society pushed second- and third-generation “immigrants” (children or grandchildren of colonial subjects who came to the mainland) so far away that they turn to another set of roots and cultural definitions? Since they are referred to as immigrants, have they taken the message to heart and developed their own community, a community that is French and Muslim?

Religious persecution in France began with reactions to Christianity, as early as the 13th Century with the fight against the Cathars, then the huguenots and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and later with the French Revolution and the Catholic Church. Politicians of the twentieth century and today want the French people to believe that Muslims threaten traditional national identity and that religious dress will destroy the secular approach to everyday life in France. One way to look at the issue suggests that how French politicians focus their battle against Islam in a manner reminiscent of what happened to the Catholic Church in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century. This cannot be the whole explanation behind why France must legislate against the presence of the Muslim veil in the public sphere. The fight against the Catholic Church was aimed at the institution. Today’s focus is on the individual practitioner.

Politicians defend the need to legislate the veil with discussions of protecting secularism and the public good. Women who wear the veil threaten secularism and the public good, or so the story goes. Secularism and the public good cannot adequately justify these laws. In order to fully understand the French discomfort with the Muslim veil, one needs to look at the development of the Algerian colony, the stereotypes developed there because of religion, and the violence that occurred during decolonization. While secularism and public good are the institutional ideologies behind the effort to legislate the veil, these are merely symptoms of the French lack of reconciliation with the Algerian colonial past. Immigrants, their descendants and now Muslims in France today still face the same attitudes from the civilizing mission.

Me at my thesis defense in May. Photo by Joan Zachary.

Me at my thesis defense in May. Photo by Joan Zachary.


1 Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage: New York, 1997). Updated version, first published in 1981

2 Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: the Republican Idea of empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1

3 Vanessa R. Schwartz, Modern France: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 40

4 “Actuellement, ce que veulent les musulmans, c’est ne plus être stigmatisés. Ne plus être instrumentalisés par les partis politiques” from France24, “Politique : la laïcité, l’Islam et la France” April 15, 2011. http://www.france24.com/fr/20110414-2011-debat-France-Islam-laicite

5 “Entre les défenseurs acharnés de la laïcité et les combats politiques, les musulmans souhaitent vivre pleinement dans la République Française.” France24, “Politique : la laïcité, l’Islam et la France” April 15, 2011.

6 Stéphanie Giry, “France and its Muslims,” Foreign Affairs (Vol 85, No 5 2006) 88

7 UDF stands for Union pour la Démocratie Française. The party later became François Bayrou’s party, the MoDems, Mouvement Democrate

8 “Notre famille politique a, depuis longtemps, œuvré pour la promotion de la laïcité et pour favoriser le passage d’un « islam en France » à un « islam de France » :” Union pour une Mouvement Populaire, “Laïcité : 26 Propositions Pour Mieux Vivre Ensemble” 3

9Un grand blabla pour rien, une grande entourloupe, preuve de l’absence totale de sincérité de l’UMP comme du gouvernement,” “Communiqué de Presse de Marine LE PEN, Présidente du Front National :” http://www.frontnational.com/

10Elle demande le respect intégral et immédiat de la loi républicaine : interdiction sans attendre des prières dans la rue, et application stricte de la loi de 1905 sur la laïcité, à tous les niveaux.” “Communiqué de Presse de Marine LE PEN, Présidente du Front National :” http://www.frontnational.com/

11un pseudo débat présenté comme portant sur la laïcité, mais dont le seul objet était et reste de stigmatiser l’Islam en jetant insidieusement l’opprobre sur des millions de Français, croyants ou non, issus de cette tradition,” http://www.parti-socialiste.fr/communiques/l-ump-n-organise-pas-un-debat-sur-la-laicite-mais-pour-stigmatiser-l-islam

12 From Le Petit Larousse (1994): laïque, laïc: … “Indépendant des organisations religieuses…”

séculier, séculière: … “se dit d’un prêtre qui n’appartient à aucun ordre ou institut religieux (par opp. à régulier)”

13 Alexis de Tocquevulle “First Letter on Algeria (23 June 1837)” in Writings on Empire and Slavery. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) 6

14 Neil MacMaster Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62 (New York: Saint Martins Press, 1997) 44

15 Dennis McEnnerney. “Frantz Fanon, the Resistance, and the Emergence of Identity Politics” in The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 262

16 Ted Morgan. My Battle of Algiers (New York: Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins, 2005) 13

17 Todd Shepard. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) 12-13

18 Dana Hale “French Images of Race on Product Trademarks during the Third Republic” in The Color of Liberty 132

19 Abdulkader H. Sinno, Muslims in Western Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 76-77