How do new immigrants come to be accepted as belonging in a nation? My new research on the French civic integration program offers some insights to address this question. Immigrants seeking to reside in France are required to sign an integration contract, committing to taking courses on French history and laws and to respecting the stated values of the French Republic. These stated values include “gender equality.”
I place quotation marks around “gender equality” to emphasize the social framing of what this concept means in different settings. While “gender equality” would appear to aid immigrant women by extending equal rights to them, it can be used to exclude immigrants from belonging in France.
The concept of “gender equality” that appears in the legislation of the French immigrant integration policy is an exclusive one. The legislation defines “gender equality” as a universal principle, doesn’t acknowledge other forms of inequality, and identifies immigrant communities as the source of gendered oppression. Indeed, the assumption that immigrants must be taught to value “gender equality” reflects the French use of stereotypes about culture to devalue generations of immigrants from Africa and Asia, including those who are born in France.
In my research, I ask if it is possible that when this integration policy is implemented on the ground, the resulting program may actually work to include a wider variety of people by framing “gender equality” without racist stereotypes and by drawing attention to how multiple systems of inequality intersect in the lives of immigrants. For example, immigrant women’s access to education is shaped by race, class, and gender.
In my new study published in Gender & Society, I examined “gender equality” in the French civic integration program. I analyzed the contents of official program materials, such as a booklet that was given out to participants, a slide deck for the courses, and the Reception and Integration Contract itself. I also spent seven months in 2010-2011 observing and interviewing frontline workers who interacted with program participants and taught courses on French civics, “The Rights and Duties of Parents,” and “Life in France.”
I found that the official program materials framed “gender equality” as a central French value and illustrated the concept using examples of prescribed and prohibited practices.
For instance, the welcome booklet asserted that in France, “…the husband and wife are equal and stand together in making important decisions” and repeatedly stated the illegality of genital cutting and polygamy in France. The program materials thus framed “gender equality” to represent the French as gender-equal and immigrants, by contrast, as having patriarchal and even violent gender relations.
The instructors and staff also employed this version of “gender equality” by framing immigrants’ cultures and religions as the sources of gender inequality. Instructors voiced stereotypes of immigrants from different origins as they tried to engage participants. For instance, one North African woman instructor told a civics class that immigrant women needed to get out and visit important places, and “not just stay home and make couscous.”
Instructors also reiterated stereotypes through targeted questioning, for example, asking Sub-Saharan African men about polygamy. In interviews, frontline workers expressed their commitment to saving immigrant women, especially Muslim women, from isolation and domestic violence, thereby affirming stereotypical representations of immigrant women as victims.
Conversely, the instructors and staff also challenged that restrictive definition of “gender equality” by arguing that “gender equality” was an ideal not yet achieved in France and warning participants about the racism they would likely experience, thereby drawing attention to multiple, intersecting inequalities. Frontline workers who were immigrants also used their firsthand knowledge to challenge certain stereotypes of immigrants’ countries of origin or religions. For instance, one North African woman instructor told a civics class that, “there are women lawyers and doctors [in Tunisia], we were more advanced than France in some ways.”
The official materials of the French civic integration program largely exhibited a version of “gender equality” which valorized the French and stereotyped the cultures of immigrants. The frontline workers who implemented the policy often reinforced this exclusionary framing of “gender equality.”
However, the program staff and instructors also challenged the representation of the French as gender-equal and some of the stereotypes of immigrants. Many of the frontline workers who had immigrated from North Africa likely faced racism themselves, despite being French citizens. For some of them, a commitment to the value of “gender equality” could have been a way to claim belonging in France.
An inclusive, feminist immigrant integration policy should follow the frontline workers’ lead to break down the stereotypical contrast between the French and immigrants, and acknowledge and provide resources for navigating the intersecting structures of inequality that shape immigrants’ lives in France.
Elizabeth Onasch is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Her research focuses on the intersections of immigration, race, gender, and nation from a comparative, critical race perspective.