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The Politics of the Veil

The Politics of the Veil

Joan Wallach Scott
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of the Veil
    Book Description:

    In 2004, the French government instituted a ban on the wearing of "conspicuous signs" of religious affiliation in public schools. Though the ban applies to everyone, it is aimed at Muslim girls wearing headscarves. Proponents of the law insist it upholds France's values of secular liberalism and regard the headscarf as symbolic of Islam's resistance to modernity.The Politics of the Veilis an explosive refutation of this view, one that bears important implications for us all.

    Joan Wallach Scott, the renowned pioneer of gender studies, argues that the law is symptomatic of France's failure to integrate its former colonial subjects as full citizens. She examines the long history of racism behind the law as well as the ideological barriers thrown up against Muslim assimilation. She emphasizes the conflicting approaches to sexuality that lie at the heart of the debate--how French supporters of the ban view sexual openness as the standard for normalcy, emancipation, and individuality, and the sexual modesty implicit in the headscarf as proof that Muslims can never become fully French. Scott maintains that the law, far from reconciling religious and ethnic differences, only exacerbates them. She shows how the insistence on homogeneity is no longer feasible for France--or the West in general--and how it creates the very "clash of civilizations" said to be at the root of these tensions.

    The Politics of the Veilcalls for a new vision of community where common ground is found amid our differences, and where the embracing of diversity--not its suppression--is recognized as the best path to social harmony.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2789-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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    (pp. vii-x)
    Ruth O’Brien

    Convening in a church’s basement daycare center, a British Christian group holds a “how to” workshop on heckling Muslims who lecture in London’s Hyde Park Speakers Corner. After hearing that half the Dutch Muslims don’t speak the language, the Parliament of the Netherlands, a country known for centuries of religious and political tolerance, debates whether such individuals should be compelled to take Dutch language classes. And in the German Bundestag, politicians contemplate forbidding imams from preaching in Arabic. But it is in France where public protest and government sanctions against Muslims first took hold.

    In her compelling bookThe Politics...

    (pp. 1-20)

    On March 15, 2004, the French government passed a law that banned the wearing of “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation in public schools. Article 1 is the key provision:

    In public elementary, middle and high schools, the wearing of signs or clothing which conspicuously manifest students’ religious affiliations is prohibited. Disciplinary procedures to implement this rule will be preceded by a discussion with the student.

    There is also an explanation of what counts as “conspicuous”:

    The clothing and religious signs prohibited are conspicuous signs such as a large cross, a veil, or a skullcap. Not regarded as signs indicating religious...

    (pp. 21-41)

    In France, debate about whether girls could wear Islamic headscarves in public schools erupted at three separate moments: in 1989, 1994, and 2003. The chronological sequence does not reflect a steady increase in the number of headscarf-wearing girls or in acts by them which might be called disruptive. The girls were usually good students, with no disciplinary records. The only objection to them was that they insisted on wearing the hijab—the piece of cloth that became (as we shall see in what follows) a symbol of the “problem of Islam” for the French republic. What the chronological sequence does...

  4. 2 RACISM
    (pp. 42-89)

    My first encounter with French racism came in 1967, while I was doing research for my dissertation at the bureau of civil registry in the town of Carmaux, once a town of miners and glass-bottle blowers, in the southern central portion of France known as the Languedoc. It was a good place to get a sense of social dynamics; all kinds of people came into the office to register marriages, births, and deaths and to acquire identity papers. The men who staffed the office often chatted with natives of the region in the local patois (much to my confusion when...

    (pp. 90-123)

    Racism was the subtext of the headscarf controversy, but secularism was its explicit justification. The law prohibiting “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation in public schools was defined above all as a defense of “laïcité,” “the cornerstone” of French republicanism, the principle that clearly separated church from state. Headscarves were deemed an intrusion of religion into the sacred secular space of the schoolroom, the crucible in which French citizens are formed. What was at stake, supporters of the ban argued, was nothing less than the future of the nation, the unity of the social body. “Etymologically,” began the National Assembly report...

    (pp. 124-150)

    As the headscarf controversy raged, the question of the intention of its wearers nagged at those who claimed they already knew what it was. What did this “conspicuous” display of religious affiliation signify? Why did girls wear veils? Were they freely chosen or forced upon them? Could the headscarf be considered a legitimate expression of individual conscience and therefore warrant protection under liberal secular law? The answers varied, but the voices of the girls themselves were strikingly absent from the debates. The Stasi commission interviewed only a few girls who wore headscarves and then in private session, away from audiences...

    (pp. 151-174)

    The law banning headscarves in public schools made a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable signs of religious conviction.

    The clothing and religious signs prohibited areconspicuous[ostensible] signs, such as a large cross, a veil, or a skullcap. Not regarded as signs indicating religious affiliation arediscreet[discret] signs, which can be, for example, medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, or small Korans.

    I have drawn attention to the words “conspicuous” and “discreet” because they resolved the difficulty the Stasi commission and its advisors had in articulating what they were after. As is usual in political...

    (pp. 175-184)

    Each year the French National Assembly gives an award to the best book about politics published in the preceding year. In 2006, its choice wasLa tentation obscurantiste(The Obscurantist Temptation) by Caroline Fourest.¹ Fourest is a feminist, one of the founders of the journalProChoix(Pro-Choice) and a leading supporter of the headscarf ban. She has been a fierce opponent of what she calls religious fundamentalisms and a staunch advocate of laïcité. To characterize her secularism as absolutist is an understatement: she sees it as the only weapon that can protect us from the loss of freedom and self-determination...