“Beurette” – or the sexualisation of women of North African descent in France over centuries

Warning: Beurette is a derogatory word.

The words “beurette”, “arab”, ” Moroccan” are among the most searched keywords on French pornographic sites in 2019 and 2016.

Robert Ménard, a French far-right politician, loudly claiming, on prime time TV, that he found “beurettes”, “not wearing the hijab” “sexy”;

“Beurette ” is a “poetic term” for Jaques Séguéla, France’s foremost adman.

These few examples exemplify the everyday sexualisation of French women of North African descent in France.  When I first heard the word ‘beurette’ while growing up in France, I quickly realised how derogatory it was. I observed a lot of contempt and disrespect from the speakers. However, the term is still widely used.

Where does it come from? Beurette comes from the word “beur”, a verlan equivalent of the term “Arab”. Popularised in the early 1980s, verlan gave rise to the term “beur” on the occasion of the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism in Marseille.

March for equality and against racism, 1983, Marseille – ©France Culture

The use of the word “beur” eventually gained popularity in the late 1990s, at the time of the 1998 World Cup, with the slogan “black blanc beur”, to celebrate French diversity.

The politisation of “Beurette

While the term “beur” is gradually fading from use, the term “beurette” was increasingly normalised, first in the French political scene. The “beurette” embodies the Muslim communities’ model of integration. The “beurette” gained her freedom through French values and was no longer under the yoke of the traditions of her North African and Muslim cultures. The “beurette ” is thus designed to inspire French women of North African descent, wearing the hijab, to “liberate themselves” and “assimilate to the French model” by adopting the dress and cultural codes.

“For Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, professor of sociology at Paris-VIII and author, with Eric Macé, of the book Les Féministes et le garçon arabe (L’Aube, 2004, to be republished in 2018), beurettes are recognised, in the popular imaginary, by their docility. Unlike boys, they are considered to be “willing to do the work of integration. They are eager to show that they want to integrate”. The use of the term “beurette”, covered by a false benevolence, has a strong paternalistic connotation: the “beurette” is the non-hijab wearing young woman, fitting into the secular republic, emancipated, by going against the supposed will of her environment of origin.”

From the image of the woman of North African descent emancipated in the “French way”, integrated, beurette changes its meaning in the years 2000, passing from the docile and westernised person to a woman called “provocative”, “easy” and sexually liberated”, not adopting the codes of the patriarchalized womanhood.

The word “beurette” in modern times refers to the sexualisation of French women of North African descent, perpetuated for centuries and traced back to the birth of Orientalism. 

Orientalism and fantasy about the “oriental woman” 

 The biased interest in “the Orient” emerged as early as the Middle Ages after the Crusades. It further evolved into a literary and artistic movement in the eighteenth century, contributing to an imagination of “the Orient” and also “the women of the Orient.” The representation of the latter were often influenced by sensuality and exoticization, with women “unveiling” themselves in more isolated and closed places, in contrast to the so-called “Oriental” modesty.

From there, the fetishisation and sexualisation of “women of the Orient” grew, following the French colonisation of North African countries. Under the guise of a ‘civilising’ mission, decimating and destroying populations and cultures, French colonisation led, among many other crimes, to the photographing of many women undressing and unveiling them, leading to the eroticisation of North African women’s bodies. 

Very quickly, pornographic imagery of North African women emerged, feeding their sexualisation, colonial pornography and sexual violence against women and girls, through postcards, photos, songs, even glorifying rape, sculptures, engravings and tableware.

“Beurette” and the contemporary sexualisation of French women of North African descent in France

Postcards gave way to websites, particularly pornographic sites, where the “beurette” represents an exoticized sexual fantasy. The fantasy was first embodied by sex workers and then by reality TV stars such as Nabilla, Ayem and Zahia. Seen as heavily made-up, ultra-tanned, motivated by the lure of money, social climbing and luxurious lifestyle, “beurette” are labelled as women who use their bodies to succeed, whether in the sex industry or on reality TV.

Beyond reality TV and pornography, the stereotyping of French women of North African descent through the “beurette” label moved forward and gained ground in cinema and music, through dubious and pernicious lyrics such as “I only go to the shisha for the beurettes”, as Booba, singing in his song Génération assassin.

The image of the “beurette” has shifted slightly. Currently, she is personified by Maeva Ghennam, a reality TV influencer. With her so-called “lascivious” and ” daring” outfits and the monetisation of her image, she plays with her stupidity and attracts attention by stirring up easy provocation with her outfits and her words.

Other female influencers have decided to reclaim the word “beurette”, such as Lisa Bouteldja, explaining the reasons behind this choice in an interview with Les Inrocks. “I translate postcolonial orientalism aesthetically to turn the stigma upside down,” explains Lisa. I am the reflection of the other’s gaze. I perform my Arabness to spread a message of freedom and respectability in all its embodiments.As in every minoritized struggle, the reappropriation of the insult is a matter of pride.”

Beurette: A word it’s time to ban

The collective subconscious influenced by contemporary pornographic, reality TV and film industry over-representations, a legacy of orientalism and colonialism, led to a humiliating dehumanisation of women of North African descent, who can only exist through certain clichés, such as that of the ‘beurette’. This is a term of insulting connotation and unheard-of violence, used to demean women of North African descent for centuries, reducing them to sexual objects.

When will we get tired of our colonial and orientalist heritage? When will this term be definitively banished from the French language?

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