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Historian probes French treatment of Algerian immigrants

[1]Jaime Wadowiec’s timely doctoral dissertation does more than unearth the origins of migrant segregation in post-colonial France; it also highlights ongoing issues about the integration of Muslims and the status of Muslim women.

After Algeria won independence from France in 1962, political unrest and an expanding French economy led hundreds of thousands of Muslim Algerians to migrate to France. The French state’s solution to the unexpected migration was spatial separation of the Algerian population, but that was only the beginning.

Funded by several competitive fellowships, Wadowiec traveled to France and spent months chasing leads and collecting archival evidence of the effects of the mass migration. In colonial archives in the south of France, Wadowiec found the voices of Muslim Algerian women through a chance encounter with some surprising documents, changing the scope of her project entirely.

Before 1962, France had extended citizenship to Algerian men and women. Women in particular took this idea at face value. “There’s this explosion in this brief time period of letters to state officials from these women saying, ‘This is what I want from the state and this is how I view myself as a citizen,’” Wadowiec says. “But after ’62, that’s all gone.”

Wadowiec reframed her project to answer that gap in history: Why aren’t there records of these women after immigration?

“It’s not so much that I’m going to recapture voices that have been lost, because they’re lost for good,” Wadowiec says. “I want to explain the operations of both racism and sexism and how those things overlap in terms of citizenship.”

The French state considered the Muslim Algerians as a specific race rather than a religious minority. The Algerian women were seen as the embodiment of Islam — and as a danger to the identity of the French citizen.

“Women were specifically oppressed in a lot of the ways you see discussions about Middle Eastern women today,” Wadowiec says. “What my dissertation does is work through the roots of that and why we perceive Islam as a cultural racial threat.”

Wadowiec’s research is unique. Not much scholarship exists on this period and the application process to view many of the documents tests a scholar’s patience.

“Jaime is an infinitely creative reader of documents,” says Elisa Camiscioli, associate professor of history and women’s studies at Binghamton. “She uses school books, old-school nationality laws; she has very eclectic, amazing historical instincts.”

With her undergraduate students, Wadowiec stresses the importance of looking beyond what is familiar: “To go out in the world and explore is so important,” she says. “When you’re studying things like race, sexuality and gender, you kind of have to take that world view, adopt an open perspective.”

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