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‘Beurettes’, genealogy of a contemporary insult. Gender and race matters in France.

March 15, 2015

As a high school teacher in France, near Paris, I have the opportunity to witness the insults my pupils are exchanging, and to talk with them about those. This article deals with the use of one of these insults, which is the term ‘beurette’, and aims to interpret its meaning, the figures and imaginary constructions with which it is associated. This paper is not about describing a sociological world but rather about understanding how this term functions in a network of meanings.

The term ‘beurette’ is often used by high school pupils to insult a woman of Northern African descent who is perceived as not mastering the codes of acceptable femininity. Such a person would, in other words, overdo it with her make-up and her clothing. She would be suspected of having dissolute mores, which means as much as that she has the sexuality of her choosing.

This suspicion of a free sexuality has led to another one, that of an interested sexuality: the ‘beurette’ would be a whore or a prostitute. The stigma is so strong it became a daily cursing word, also addressed to men. Thus, there is a semantic slip:

‘Beurette’ is the feminine of ‘beur’, which means ‘Arab’ in French slang. The term emerged during the early eighties, when children of Northern African migrants were acknowledged in the media, and it was positively connoted because the “beurette” was representing the integration model.

‘Beurette’ → Arab woman

Then ‘Beurette’ → Arab woman → vulgar, coarse woman

Then ‘Beurette’ → Arab woman → vulgar, coarse woman → sexually active woman

Then ‘Beurette’ → Arab woman → vulgar woman → sexually active woman → prostitute.

This word is of course sexist, as it stands for ‘slut’, but the term is also racist.

The use of this term implies a presupposition, according to which women with North African migrant background would be more prone than others to be ‘sluts’, which would justify to be put in a category of their own. They would be particularly vulgar and would not master the codes of acceptable femininity: the upper class norm of a well-mannered woman, without excess. Potentially, they would always be in excess compared to that norm: their bodies and their styles would overflow. Caricatures therefore represent the ‘beurette’ as a dark woman with straightened hair and an orange skin tone (due to the excessive use of makeup foundation or to artificial tanning) with an arched body and heavy breasts. Recurring jokes on Twitter show, for instance, a picture of a clementine with a ‘Morocco’ tag, labeled as ‘beurette.’

The presupposition results from a shift in the categories of how women are perceived according to their race. The very existence of this word reveals how easy it is to perceive these specific women as vulgar. If, to describe them, we use a specific term, it is because we expect these women to be even more strictly conforming to norms of acceptable femininity. When one calls a woman ‘beurette’, he or she means that this person is not assimilated as a woman and that this lack of integration is triggered by her race as if, even more so than others, she has to prove her respectability. In contrast, white women who are infringing the norms of acceptable femininity are ‘only’ called ‘sluts’ but not ‘whities’. The term ‘beurette’ rests therefore upon categories of perception which are republican and pro integration 1.

Youngsters are not really aware of this when they use the insult. For many of them, the term mainly refers to a presumed lack of respectability: a ‘beurette’ embarrasses her relatives in front of others, and this is why it is also commonplace to call a young boy of North African descent a “beurette”.

This presupposition of the potential vulgarity of women with Northern African background is linked to a racist history of ‘beurette.’ The term conveys, historically speaking, two intertwined meanings:

– Firstly, the ‘beurette’ of the 1980s alludes to a woman that we can integrate. She is a good, docile migrant girl, who will agree to turn her back to her background. She is the opposite of the violent boy of North African background, who is impossible to integrate2. She is obedient, yet free, as she freed herself from her ‘own kind.’

– The term ‘beurette’ in the 2000s has another dimension, however linked to the first one, as it becomes an autonomous porn category. The ‘beurette’ represents the fantasy of the North African woman who is to be unveiled by a white man who sexually initiates her. In this fantasy, the white man is the liberator of the oppressed North African woman, who, until that moment, has been sexually repressed by violent and innately chauvinist North African men.

The two meanings have one point in common: the idea that migrant women have to be freed by sex. These meanings are the direct byproducts of a colonial imaginary, which turned female bodies into power relations, eroticising them in an orientalist fashion, and always looking to unveil them and to appropriate them. Here we find the meaning of the unveiling ceremonies that Fanon wrote about. There is only a gradual difference between the first and the second step, between the unveiling and the corruption, although the second step drives the ‘beurette’ from the realm of acceptable and accepted women into the world of unworthy, un-respectable and thus unacceptable women. It is as if, from the beginning on, the colonial project for girls of North African background already contained the seed of their own symbolic execution. They have to be freed from their fathers’ and brothers’ fantasied violent and backward tutelage. But once sexually freed, they are driven into another imaginary world in which they are damaged, corrupted creatures. The white man simultaneously integrates them and alienates them from the world of acceptable women. They are thus trapped and cornered, no matter what they do:

– either they refuse the colonial emancipatory project and are thus considered bad citizens, bad Frenchwomen refusing to integrate,

– or they give the impression of accepting the terms of their ‘liberation’, maybe by simply using their bodies and sexualities freely, but then they are considered idiots, vulgar and cheap, corrupted women.

The figure of a cheap, garish and apparently stupid woman is particularly put forward in the media (Nabilla, Ayem, or Zahia)3. We never see as many women from North African descent on TV as in the real reality TV shows, and there is a high share of media bimbos who are from migrant background. Maybe, we would need to question this overrepresentation which is of course not representative of women of Northern African descent in France today. There is indeed a repulsive fascination in the media world for the ‘beurette’ figure, emancipated from her brothers, from the religious guardianship, sexually freed and thus stupid, venal, empty. In fact, she is not even really perceived as of North African origin: her ‘Arabness’ seems to be erased by her sexuality. Only the Arab name as a stigma remains, as a sign. She is now only a ‘beurette’ in the second meaning of the term. We went from the imaginary of a desirable ‘beurette’ — desirable because she has yet to be freed — to the imaginary of the freed, thus stupid, Nabilla. The image of the Arab woman thus became cheap and vulgar. She is not even adorned by the arrays of orientalism anymore, she is entirely absorbed between the opposing categories of the oppressed woman on one side and the porn bimbo on the other. Advertisement has acknowledged this evolution of the orientalist imaginary. For instance, even though for years Shalimar perfume was portrayed by a dark haired, dark skinned woman, it is now represented by a white woman with clear eyes, Natalia Vodianova, which, by the way, gives the perfume video colonialist aspects. In the same way, video ads for products such as coffee that featured dark women in oriental sets have shifted towards white models. From now on, the orientalist imaginary functions without the “indigenous”, “oriental” woman: only the set remains, because this woman has already been unveiled, corrupted and soiled, she is no longer adorned with the charms of mystery and is just a garish, cheap envelope that does not sell anymore.

The contemporary stigma of ‘beurette’ results specifically from this ‘cheapening’ process of the orientalist fantasy. The stigma of outrageousness and vulgarity that sticks to women of North African descent is the direct consequence of the way white patriarchy has first constructed them as desirable for being unruly figures, and then as repulsive figures for being ‘consumed.’ Therefore, the ‘beurette’ insult could be a reproach against a strategic mistake: integration by submission to the white sexual demand is a dead-end. But interestingly, this insult does not mean being “sold”. Indeed, an Arab woman from postcolonial migrant background who is in a relationship with a white man is in fact “unbeurred” (débeurrisée) since she conforms with the white norms of femininity, a conforming checked and approved by a white man who would not be satisfied with cheap and garish femininity. Generally, a woman who would be called ‘beurette’ would not be in an emotional and/or sexual relationship with a white man. She would rather be either with an Arab man or with a Black man. The latter is referred to with the phrase “beurette à khel”, “beurette for Blacks”, which is becoming a category on itself. The ‘beurette’ embarrasses her kind in front of whites, but also in front of other racialized groups, and this even more insofar as she is “compromising” herself with men of these other groups. ‘Beurette for Blacks’ will thus be used by an Arab man towards an Arab woman, but also by a Black man towards an Arab woman, or even by a Black man towards an Arab man. The ‘beurette’ worsens her situation since not only she fails to integrate to the female group but also she does not even keep trying through a white man. She uses her body and her femininity without any gain: she loses her respectability in front of her kind by freely using her body, and at the same time she does not earn the white man’s approval, because her excesses are excluding her from the white seduction market. She earns nothing in return of her loss of respectability because being in a relationship with a Black man would not bring her any benefit on the level of “Republican integration”.

Between refusing the codes of femininity, which assign her to the ranks of the non-integrable citizen, and refusing compromising with white patriarchy, she chooses a third path, which, in a way, subverts the alternative mentioned above. She subverts the femininity to which she is compelled to submit by being outrageous, and she uses her body freely and thereby escapes white patriarchy. A kind of reversal of the stigma, which is also a subversion. If that still provokes the violence of the insult, it is because the strategy of the ‘beurette for Blacks,’ whether conscious or not, contradicts the need for men of North African descent and of postcolonial migration, to be reassured about their virility, damaged by colonial and postcolonial imaginaries. At stake here is the virility of racialized men, partly threatened by how white patriarchy tried to unvirilize them by targeting colonised women. The ‘beurette for Blacks’ insult works thanks to the postcolonial stigma that hyper-sexualises and damages these women, but it is active in situations that do not follow the sexual scripts created by this postcolonial imaginary. It is as if, because unvirilized by this imaginary, Arab and Black men reemployed it against women, the same women that were used as intermediaries to ridicule Arab and Black men.

1The French notion of « Republicanism » is particularly problematic as it is supposed to convey the « universal » values of the French Republic. Among other things, the notion does not acknowledge its colonial past and current practices, and is used by a wide political spectrum in order to actually discriminate and oppress everybody or every practice that go beyond a very narrow understanding of the French citizenship.

2See for instance the works of Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, Des beurettes, Paris, Hachette Pluriel, 2003.

3Nabilla Benattia is the star of “the Angels of Real TV”, broadcast in the main French TV network. Ayem Nour is also a star of a Real TV show, Secret Story and TV show host. Zahia Dehar is the escort girl hired by some French soccer stars in the early 2000’s while still underage.

Bibliography:

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– Gilles Boëtsch, « Corps mauresques », Corps 1/ 2006 (n° 1), p. 83-98

– Julia Clancy-Smith, “Islam, gender and identity in the making of French Algeria” in Domesticating The Empire: Languages of Gender, Race, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism, 1830-1962, The University Press of Virginia, 1998.

– Julia Clancy-Smith “La femme arabe: Women and Sexuality in France’s North African Empire.” In Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic Society, ed. Amira El Azhary Sonbol, 52-63. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

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– Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, Des Beurettes, Hachette, 2003.

– Paul S. Landau, « Empires of the Visual : Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa », dans Images and Empires. Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, sous la dir. de Paul S. Landau, Deborah D. Kaspin, Berkeley-Los Angeles-Londres, 2002, p. 161.

– Edward D. Said, L’Orientalisme. L’Orient créé par l’Occident, Paris, Le Seuil, 1980

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– Mohanty Chandra Tapalde, « Under Western Eyes : Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses », In Mohanty Chandra Tapalde. Feminism without Borders. Duke University Press, 2004.

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– C. Taraud, L. Sebbar et J.-M. Belorgey, Femmes d’Afrique du Nord, Cartes postales, éd. Bleu autour, 2010.

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