Marseille’s designation as “European Capital of Culture” in 2013 has certainly improved the city’s image. From the New York Times to National Geographic, Marseille has received long-awaited attention for its urban and cultural transformation: after decades of violence, poverty, and social malaise, it is emerging as the new capital of the Mediterranean, a raffish, “rough but refined” port city and tourist destination. “Marseille is Paris’ messy, mad other—the New Orleans of France,” writes Shirine Saad for Ralph Lauren Magazine. “It is the city of sailors and prostitutes, Marcel Pagnol and bouillabaise. But it’s also a thriving hub of street and contemporary culture.”
Yet another facet of this Mediterranean multiculturalist representation of the city relates to questions of gender and feminism, which have figured prominently in the Marseille 2013 public relations campaign. At the Bazaar of Gender: Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean, one of the first exhibitions at the newly minted Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, explored gender relations in the Mediterranean world. This exhibition focused on topics such as reproductive rights, the Muslim headscarf, and gay and lesbian rights, intended to unify women of the Mediterranean behind a common feminist agenda. Underlying this Mediterranean feminist discourse, however, is the belief that women of the sea’s southern shores lag behind their more progressive northern Mediterranean sisters.
Not everyone is convinced. Indeed, this rhetoric of Mediterranean multiculturalism and feminism has its critics, who insist that the “capital of culture” initiative offers a Eurocentric vision of Marseille that ignores the cultural production of the city’s margins. Marseille 2013 aims to attract investors and boost tourism, ignoring or even damaging the city’s margins as luxury hotels replace affordable housing. “The disgrace of [Marseille 2013]…” writes Corsican-born Moroccan-Marsaillais novelist Minna Sif in the French magazine Libération “was to instrumentalize multiculturalism… at the time of the candidacy [only] to destroy it afterward.” Sif’s public critique of Marseille 2013 coincides with the publication of her latest novel Massalia Blues, which featured prominently in local bookstores throughout 2013 and garnered ample media attention. I see Sif’s novel as a challenge to Mediterranean multiculturalism and dominant stereotypes of North African women as oppressed, but I believe that it reproduces other violent Eurocentric representations at the same time.
Anchored in North African immigrant spaces such as la Porte d’Aix and le Marché de Noailles, Massalia Blues uses feminism as a discourse to challenge the legitimacy of “made-over” Marseille. In the novel, the female narrator works as a “public writer” in front of Marseille’s central post office, a bureaucratic state office and yet a place where the marginalized congregate. The narrator’s self-proclaimed profession (“public writer”) undermines what Western anthropological literature has constructed as “traditional” gender separation in Mediterranean cities, whereby women are hidden from public spaces and sequestered in private homes (or even harems). Thus, the narrator’s self-identification as a “public writer” is her appropriation of an administrative and public (thus masculine) space of the central post office.
As a “public writer,” she chronicles the North African immigrant experience in Marseille, recording the stories of illiterate North African migrants eager to share news with relatives on the other shore of the Mediterranean. In spite of the service she renders this community, her role elicits resentment from the older North African men who populate the post office, who tell her that “a woman’s real place was in a well-kept home” (38). An older North African woman goes so far as to warn the narrator to “watch out” as (North African) men “hate women who write” (59).
The novel portrays North African immigrant men as both sexist and sexually predatory. Sif, however, establishes North African immigrant women as regulators of their own sexuality, subordinating male sexual impulses to their needs. When not standing guard at the post office, a North African immigrant lurks in Marseille’s outdoor market, eyeing the crowds of female shoppers. The oversexed immigrant’s advances, however, are met with ridicule and violent opposition from his potential prey, calling into question the French stereotype of North African women as victims. Defiantly returning the predatory man’s gaze, the North African women of Marseille, via an act of spatial appropriation undermine his attempt to constitute them as sex objects. That is, they transform the space of the le Marché de Noailles into an arena of collective female mobilization.
Sif conjures the stereotype of the sexually predatory North African man in order to critique the attached myth of North African women’s passivity. In so doing, however, she plays into the hands of dominant French representations of patriarchal Muslim men who oppress Muslim women, feeding the very discriminatory practices she criticizes. Moreover, the representation of North African men as oppressors helps sustain the brand of feminism that underwrites the multiculturalism embodied in the Marseille 2013 campaign. I define Mediterranean feminism in the French context as the embrace of the Mediterranean as a site of feminist liberation in contradistinction to an oppressed Muslim femininity.
The attempt to make North African women “Mediterranean,” which has its roots in France’s “civilizing mission” in colonial Algeria, is connected to French-initiated modernization projects such as Marseille 2013. Minna Sif’s novel is a useful starting point for criticizing the “made-overness” of Marseille 2013, but it also has its limits. As she pits North African women in Marseille against violent Muslim men, it is worth considering what other approaches to Mediterranean feminism this representation may foreclose. How might one articulate a Mediterranean feminism that is critical of both patriarchal structures and Western notions about “Muslim patriarchy?” Perhaps a truly multicultural Mediterranean feminism comes not from re-inscribing Eurocentric and essentializing stereotypes of gender relations in the Muslim Mediterranean, but rather from critiquing them using the experiences and struggles of individual women.