What’s happened since the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

Journalist & comedienne Shaista Aziz presents “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” on BBC3 tonight at 9pm

When 11 journalists from the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot dead in January this year, for cartoons that blasphemed the Prophet Muhammed, it rocked the world. At the time, I commented that it was watershed moment, much like the 9/11 attacks. The rise in Islamaphobia that we’ve seen since 9/11 has intensified, with different groups feeling a ripple effect.

In a documentary to air tonight on BBC 3 “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath”, journalist and comedian Shaista Aziz travels to France to explore what life has been like there for Muslims since the attacks earlier this year.

Shaista spoke exclusively to me about her experience.

“I wanted to explore what was really behind the Je Suis Charlie hashtag. At first when people aligned themselves to this, it was very much in favour of free speech. But it became a tag that really divided people. In making this film, I wanted to deconstruct what that was about, and what life has been like since the attacks”

What she found, in some cases, was startling.

“Some French Muslims have felt like they have been rejected by mainstream France. They say they have been forced, in some cases, to disown the French part of their identity. They are Muslims- but not French Muslims. The concept of “country of origin” has become a real issue. Second generation immigrants are not considered French so instead they identify with the faith or the heritage of their parents- because some sections of France won’t accept them.”

“In a country where secularism is the cornerstone, and is there to protect minorities, we’re actually seeing the rise of religious discrimination; with many being pushed away from mainstream society. One young man said he ‘felt locked out’ of France ‘with the key thrown away’.”

“One woman I spoke to, (who doesn’t wear the hijab), says she is unable to find a job because of her Arab name despite being highly educated and well qualified. She changed her name on her CV to a French one and the job interviews started pouring in.”

“Sadly, women face the brunt of discrimination. Because France believes religion should not be visible in public life, the hijab is banned from government offices, public buildings and schools. Therefore women who do wear the hijab elsewhere– particularly in the poorer, more racially diverse suburbs suffer discrimination because they wear a visible religious symbol in a secular state. For example, one girl I spoke to has been excluded from school for four years now because she refuses to give up her headscarf- she is missing out on an education.”

“Ultimately, there are two key issues at work in this debate: identity and race. Identity has become a hotly contested issue in French society, with issues around race- and secularism underpinning it.”

I asked Shaista how the events in Paris back in January might have impacted British Asians.

“There are different factors at work in the UK which that mean life is different for us here. British Muslims in the UK are better integrated into society, compared to those I met in France. Secularism has caused deep issues in France that we are not seeing here- France certainly has some fault lines that need mending. However the general narrative around Islamaphobia and the negativity around Muslims is seeping into the consciousness here. People are sick of hearing about Muslims in the news constantly- I know I am!

As a result, we are starting to see more visible inter-racism amongst Asians. Of course this will have an impact on the British Asian community, going forward.”

“A Nation Divided: The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” will be shown tonight, at 9pm on BBC3

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5 thoughts on “What’s happened since the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

  1. Being visibly different is difficult no matter where you are.

    My husband is from Pakistan, I am white European. We used to live in Pakistan for a while and after a few months I grew sick of constantly wearing salwar kameez (duppatas and I don’t mesh well – they slide off all the time, get stuck everywhere, etc.). So I wore loose trousers and a long-sleeved, high-necked, loose blouse when we went to a park with our daughter. I somehow managed to draw a small gawping crowd, very uncomfortable! Later on, an older woman in a fast food restaurant grabbed my arm and shouted Urdu into my face which my husband refused to translate for me.

    When I expressed my distress about how the evening had gone I was told: “What did you expect? You didn’t exactly dress like a local!”

    • That’s really awful- I’m so sorry to hear that happened. Too be honest I’m not surprised, and if it’s any consolation it happens here too (check out my post No Country for White Men).
      Being told “What do you expect….” is totally unacceptable- that’s blaming the victim. It’s like saying you’re to blame for being the victim of racism, when clearly the prejudice lies with the other person. I hope you didn’t take those comments on board as it’s not your fault! We should be free to marry, live, dress as we each see fit without other people putting their narrow-mindedness on us. Anything less is unacceptable.
      Has your situation improved?

      • Thank you for your reply!

        My situation has improved in as much as I decided to remove myself from the situation; we live in the UK at the moment. I have lived all over the world and had visited Pakistan several times before we moved but when I had no longer the leeway of a temporary visitor, things were very different.

        I had trouble connecting with anybody on a more than superficial level and felt extremely lonely. Nobody seemed to share any of my interests and I couldn’t get exited about the things my sisters-in-law and my husband’s cousins liked to talk about (I can’t watch Indian soap operas for more than five minutes. I can’t. But then, neither can I do that with Eastenders or a German soap. So I might just be defective in that way ;)).

        My daughter went to an “International” school which turned out to be anything but. It was simply an English medium school for rich people. Some of the pupils had lived abroad before but my daughter was the only one of mixed heritage and who did not have Urdu as a first language.

        It all came to a head when the mother of one of my (7-year-old) daughter’s classmates started rumours that I used to be a pole dancer (!!!) because clearly, all white women are prostitutes.

        I then decided that I was not happy there and clearly people also were not happy for me to be there (there were a lot more incidents, the pole dancing rumour was just a very bizarre and potentially dangerous one).

        I also experienced some reverse racism. Several times I was offered jobs I had neither any qualification for, nor relevant experience to offer. I was just supposed to sit in on meetings and show my face to important business partners (and on the company website). Er, no thank you.

        I really would have liked this to be a positive experience but right now I can’t say I would be willing to go back even for just a visit.

      • I’m so sorry to read of your experiences Nika- thank you for being so open. Reverse racism is an interesting term. I think we’ve become so accustomed to white on brown/black racism that we forget that human nature- fear, ignorance, suspicion, causes racism everywhere. ‘An outsider in our midst’- as these people clearly saw you as, has got to be one of the most challenging situations for a group of people.
        I think you made the right move removing yourself from that situation- sometimes its the only answer; and it’s not running away, it’s the smart thing. Perhaps that community were simply not ready for you.

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