BookView | The Politics of the Veil by Joan Wallach Scott


“In the end it’s not because of Islam that we stay at home, but because of French society.”

Joan Wallach Scott is an American historian who specializes in Gender and  Intellectual History in France at Princeton University. This testimony reproduced in her book, The Politics of the Veil, sums up the current plight of Muslim women in France. The book aims to discuss the background, justification and the french discourse on the “veil”. It discusses the issue and subsequent ban of the veil in primary schools in regard to the French form of secularism, which is considered to be one of the hallmarks of the French Republic. French secularity, or the policy Laïcité, as it is better known in France, has many interpretations and forms of application.

One of the main reasons for the ban of the veil was to uphold the policy of Laïcité, according to the supporters of the ban. “Laïcité is part of the mythology of the specialness and superiority of French republicanism”(Black Hillary, Freedom, Norms, and the Ban of the Muslim Veil in France: 1830- Present( Published paper) – norms-and-ban-muslim-veil-france), the same mythology that insists that the French republic is vastly different from others. In the most simple terms, it means the separation of church and state through the state’s protection of individuals from the claims of religion. Though supporters of the ban claim that it is to uphold the policy of Laïcité, Scott claims that there are many other reasons as well, such as racism, postcolonial guilt and fear, and nationalism.

According to the supporters of the ban, the headscarf, which is better known as the veil, was considered detrimental to French custom and law because it violated the French policy of Laïcité, insisted on creating differences between citizens that considered it’s people one and the same, and accepted the “subordination of women” in a republic that was created on the basis of equality. “The veil was the ultimate symbol of Islam’s resistance to modernity.” But the main point that Scott tries to explain is that the struggle of the “veil” is not between tradition and modernity. Nor is it about secularist universal values, such as, the separation of church and state. It is a controversy that reveals the prejudices of white Judeo-Christian Europeans against the so-called “immigrants” of the nation, many of whose parents and grandparents came from their former colonies. “By banning the headscarf, French legislators insisted they were removing the sign of women’s inequality from the classroom and, in so doing, declaring that the equality of women and men was a first hallmark of the republic. Anyone who would pledge allegiance to the republic must endorse that principle. It was one of the tenets of laïcité. “Today, laïcité cannot be conceived without a direct link to equality between the sexes”.” Scott insists that this is not the basis of the ban but rather the justification of it.

The cover of The Politics of the Veil.

Scott analyses the re-importation of the civilizing mission that was implemented in postcolonial France, and of the crisis of authority within the French educational system. Throughout, she looks at the current ‘clash of civilizations’, that pits the Muslim culture and French culture against one another, with Islam becoming the ‘Other’. Islam has been demonized, serving as reassurance about the universal, rational and timeless nature of ‘French’ values. She recounts the colonialist anxiety of the French at the face of veiled Muslim women in early colonial history, forcing the reader to consider the underlying reasons for the ban on headscarves. Scott writes, “Racism was the subtext of the headscarf controversy, but secularism was its explicit justification”. The veil, which only a minority of the country’s Muslim women actually wear, places a threat against assimilations, thereby placing anxieties about immigration. These anxieties were used by the far-right organizations, especially Le Pen’s, ‘The Front National’ to create fear about immigrants and how they would never truly be “French”. It is important to understand that the French system of Secularity and Equality does not allow for Cultural Integration which a form of cultural exchange in which one group assumes the beliefs, practices and rituals of another group without sacrificing the characteristics of its own culture, but practices Cultural Assimilation, where the cultural exchange leads to one group assuming the beliefs, practices and rituals of another group by sacrificing the characteristics of its own culture. (Bourdieu, P. (1984) [1979] Distinction. Boston: Harvard University Press. (Introduction; Chapter 5))

“The differences that otherwise maybe considered ethnocultural are regarded as innate, indelible and unchangeable that a racist ideology or attitude can be said to exist. My theory of conception of power has two components: difference and power. ” said historian George Fredrickson. The French conception of the Muslim culture fits this description. The persistent reference to the hiding of faces and the expression of deep anxiety about the ways in which Islam handled the relations of the sexes insists upon the superiority of French gender relations. The pro-ban sector’s insistence that the veil disregards individual freedom and the complete disregard of the opinion that the veil might be a legitimate self-expression for those who wear it, are linked to the inherent racist idea that Islam is a backward culture, that has not, and will never “modernize” itself according to western standards. These so called emancipators women from patriarchy and oppression don’t realize that these phenomenons are not unique to Islam. Scott argues that “Islam’s insistence on recognizing the difficulties posed by sexuality revealed more than republicans wanted to see about the limits of their own system”. According to Scott, the issue is organised in terms of good vs evil, civilised versus backward, morally upright versus ideologically compromised, us versus them. The Insiders and Outsiders as Becker would name this situation as (Becker, H. S. (2008 [1963]). Outsiders. Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press (Chapters 1 & 2)). Islamic theory problematizes sexuality through the veil, thereby making it explicit while the French determination to make bodies visible denies that sexuality is a problem for republican political theory.

It is understood from Scott’s analysis that the different socio-historical context gives rise to different public policies as well as different discourses on the veil. The political hysteria that characterized the campaign to pass the ban on the veil depicted it as a terrorist threat that was challenging the framework upon which the French republic has been created. In response the nation rallied itself, defending the principle of laïcité, abstract individualism, and gender equality. Scott succeeds in revealing how the inability of French government’s failure to address the issue of the veil meaningfully underlines its current inability to create a country where the co-existence of differences, rather than celebration of what is common or the same, is the basis of community. The law that bans the veil has had ramifications well beyond the classrooms of French public schools. Passed as an endorsement of secularism and gender equality, it has in fact authorized expressions of racism and legitimized practices of discrimination.  Bourdieu’s sense on social class and Habitus is confirmed whereby the liminality of the French society is in the impossibility of integrating the Muslim’s into the French society. The references and reinforcement of stereotypes that were perpetuated through the era of colonialism and contemporary times determines their status despite their extended residence on French territory. The conflux of identities , the contextual unveiling and veiling , feminist qualms, institutional norms, individuality in the French sense and stigmatisation is highlighted through this book by Joan Wallach Scott.

“The issue is not common being, but being-in-common”  — Jean-Luc Nancy

Samragni Dasgupta is a volunteer researcher at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Bustle

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice