1.How do Charles Taylor’s arguments about the politics of recognition offer an ethical counterargument against the arguments of the supporters of France’s headscarf ban as outlined in the chapter we read from Politics of the Veil (Scott, 2007). First, outline the arguments of the proponents of the headscarf ban. What definition of equality does it promote? Then formulate a counterargument using Charles Taylor.2.Using Marwan Kraidys analytical method of critical transculturalism, how does hybridity appear in the films, The Illusionists (2015) (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.and Gods and Kings (2013) (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.? Using specific examples, compare and contrast how hybridity in these films relate to structures of power (economic and/or political) and to local agency.
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THE POLITICS OF THE VEIL
Joan Wallach Scott
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
Princeton and Oxford
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 3 Market Place,
Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1SY
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Scott, Joan Wallach.
The politics of the veil / Joan Wallach Scott.
p. cm. (The public square)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-12543-5 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Muslims
France. 2. IslamophobiaFrance. 3. RacismFrance. 4. Hijab
(Islamic clothing)Law and legislationFrance. 5. MuslimsCultural
assimilationFrance. 6. SecularismFrance. 7. Culture conflict
France. I. Title.
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Adobe Caslon and Helvetica Neue
Printed on acid-free paper. 8
Printed in the United States of America
The Headscarf Controversies 21
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 affiliation are discreet signs, which can be, for example, medallions, small
crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, or small Korans.
Although the law applied to Jewish boys in skullcaps and
Sikh boys in turbans, as well as to anyone with a large cross
around his or her neck, it was aimed primarily at Muslim girls
wearing headscarves (hijab in Arabic; foulard in French). The
other groups were included to undercut the charge of discrimi-
nation against Muslims and to comply with a requirement that
such laws apply universally. The headscarf, or, as it was soon to
be referred to almost exclusively, the veil (voile), was considered
inimical to French custom and law because it violated the separation of church and state, insisted on differences among citizens in a nation one and indivisible, and accepted the subordination of women in a republic premised on equality. For many
supporters of the law, the veil was the ultimate symbol of Islams resistance to modernity.
France is not the only country to worry about girls or
women in headscarves. Similar legislation has been proposed
in Belgium, Australia, Holland, and Bulgaria. In Turkey, which
presents a different set of issuesa secular state since 1923
(modeled on the French republic), it has a majority Muslim
populationa ban applies to elected officials, civil servants,
and school and university students. In Bulgaria, which has long
had a significant Muslim minority, a law to prohibit headscarves is still being discussed, but its proponents seem driven
at least in part by a desire to be acceptable Europeans. In
Germany, most of whose Muslims come from Turkey, many
regional states prohibit teachers (though not students) from
wearing the hijab. The European Court of Human Rights has
weighed in on the matter too, ruling in a Turkish case that governments are within their rights when they prohibit headscarves in schools. This ruling is meant to apply to all European countries, not only to Turkey. A dissenting note has been
sounded by the UN committee charged with implementing
CEDAW (the convention outlawing all forms of discrimination against women): in 2005, it expressed concern about the
effects of such bans on womens access to schools and uni-
versities. Still, there seems to be a consensus about the meaning of the headscarf and the challenge to secular democracy
that it represents, even though the girls and adult women who
wear them are decidedly a minority within diasporic Muslim
Indeed, the numbers do not explain the attention being paid
to veils. In France, just before the law was passed, only 14 percent of Muslim women polled wore the hijab, although 51 percent declared that they actively practiced their religion.1 In the
Netherlands, which proposed outlawing the burqa (the fullbody covering worn by women), it is estimated that only fifty
to one hundred women wear it, out of a population of about a
million Muslims.2 Similarly, in England, where the niqab,
which covers a womans entire face except for her eyes, was the
focus of controversy in 2006, the number of wearers is tiny,
though BBC news reported an increase in sales of niqabs in reaction to exforeign secretary Jack Straws proposal to ban
them. Banning the headscarf or veil is a symbolic gesture; for
some European nations it is a way of taking a stand against Islam, declaring entire Muslim populations to be a threat to national integrity and harmony. The radical acts of a few politically inspired Islamists have become a declaration of the intent
of the many; the religious practices of minorities have been
taken to stand for the culture of the whole; and the notion of
a fixed Muslim culture obscures the mixed sociological realities of adaptation and discrimination experienced by these immigrants to the West.
My question in this book is, why the headscarf? What is it
about the headscarf that makes it the focus of controversy, the
sign of something intolerable? The simple answers offered by
politicians who pass the laws and some feminists who support
them is that the veil is an emblem of radical Islamist politics.
In the words of the Australian Brownyn Bishop, it has become the icon, the symbol of the clash of cultures, and it runs
much deeper than a piece of cloth. In addition, it is widely argued that veils stand for the oppression of women. So insists
Margaret De Cuyper of Holland: Women have lived for too
long with clothes and standards decided for them by men; this
[the removal of the veil] is a victory.3
These answers dont explain enough. Headscarves (or veils)
are worn by only a small fraction of Muslim women, the vast
majority of whom have assimilated in some way or another to
the Western values and dress of the countries in which they
now live. Moreover, veils are not the only visible sign of difference that attaches to religious Muslims, not the only way a religious/political identity can be declared. Men often have distinctive appearances (beards, loose clothing) and behavior
(prayers, food preferences, aggressive assertions of religious
identity tied to activist politics), yet these are not considered to
be as threatening as the veil and so are not addressed by legal
prohibition. The laws do not go on to challenge the structures
of gender inequality in codes of Muslim family law; these
codes have been allowed to stand in some Western European
countries, and are left to religious authorities to enforce, even if
they are not the law of the host country. Even more confounding, concern with gender inequality seems limited to Muslims
and does not extend to French or German or Dutch practices
that also permit the subordination of women. It is as if patriarchy were a uniquely Islamic phenomenon!
What is it about the status of women in Islam that invites
special remedial attention? Why has the veil been singled out
as an icon of the intolerable difference of Muslims? How has
insistence on the political significance of the veil obscured
other anxieties and concerns of those obsessed with it? How
has the veil become a way of addressing broad issues of ethnicity and integration in France and in Western Europe more
generally? To answer these questions we cannot take at face
value the simple oppositions offered by those who would ban
it: traditional versus modern, fundamentalism versus secularism, church versus state, private versus public, particular versus
universal, group versus individual, cultural pluralism versus national unity, identity versus equality. These dichotomies do not
capture the complexities of either Islam or the West. Rather,
they are polemics that in fact create their own reality: incompatible cultures, a clash of civilizations.
A number of studies argue convincingly that the Islamic
headscarf is a modern, not a traditional, phenomenon, an effect
of recent geopolitical and cultural exchanges that are global in
scale. The French sociologist Olivier Roy, for example, describes the current religiosity of Muslim populations in Europe
as both a product of and a reaction to westernization. The new
Islamic religiosity, he maintains, parallels similar quests for
new forms of spirituality in the secular environments of the
West. Islam, he writes, cannot escape the New Age of religion or choose the form of its own modernity.4 I would add
that while present-day Islam is undeniably modern, there is
not one universalizing form of its modernity, and it is especially the differences that matter. I agree with Roy that todays
Islam is not a throwback to earlier practices, nor does it emanate from bounded traditions or identifiable communities.
There is not, Roy insists, a single Muslim culture which corresponds to the sociological and demographic profiles of the
immigrant populations now residing in Europe. Indeed Islam
is historically decentralized; unlike Catholicism, with its headquarters in Rome and a single figure of authority at its head,
Islamic theology is articulated through continuing debate and
interpretation, much like Jewish theology. Moreover, there is
no single theology, but a plurality of them. Among Muslim
immigrant populations, there are, to be sure, attempts to establish group identifications, but these are voluntary, Roy says,
since they do not correspond any longer to fixed placesterritories, statesor even to institutions like the family. In fact,
voluntary groupings tend to divide generations; religiosity is
one way for children to declare their independence from family
constraints. It is also a way for dominated groups to insist on
the legitimacy of their religion. The contexts within which
populations assert Islamic identity need to be specified. What
does establish Muslims as a single community, a virtual
community in Roys description of it, is specific legislation
that serves to objectify them.5 Various judicial and legislative
decrees in Western Europe, prominently among them the
French law banning Islamic headscarves, are examples of this
The intense debates about passing such laws serve another
purpose as well: they offer a defense of the European nationstates at a moment of crisis. As membership in the European
Union threatens national sovereignty (borders, passports, currency, finance) and calls for an overhaul of social policy (the
welfare state, labor market regulation, gender relations), as
globalization weakens the standing of domestic markets, and
as former colonial subjects seek a permanent place in the
metropole, the question of national identity has loomed large
in Western Europe. Depending on particular national histories, the idealization of the nation has taken various forms. In
France it has taken the form of an insistence on the values and
beliefs of the republic, said to be a realization of the principles
of the Enlightenment in their highest, most enduring form.
This image of France is mythical; its power and appeal rests, to
a large degree, on its negative portrayal of Islam. The objectification of Muslims as a fixed culture has its counterpart in the
mythologizing of France as an enduring republic. Both are
imagined to lie outside historyantagonists locked in eternal
This dual construction, France versus its Muslims, is an operation in virtual community building. It is the result of a sustained polemic, a political discourse. I understand discourse to
refer to interpretation, to the imposition of meaning on phenomena in the world; it is mutable and contested, and so the
stakes are high. Discourse is an important way of characterizing what I am studying; I use the term to counter the notion of
culture that was employed in the debates. Culture in those usages implied objectively discernible values and traditions that
were homogeneous and immutable; complexity, politics, and
history were absent. Culture was said to be the cause of the differences between France and its Muslims. In fact, I argue that
this idea of culture was the effect of a very particular, historically specific political discourse. Creating the reality one wants
requires strong argument and the discrediting, if not silencing,
of alternative points of view. Outlawing the veil, even though it
was worn by very few students in French public schools, was an
attempt to enact a particular version of reality, one which insisted on assimilation as the only way for Muslims to become
French. The presentation of what it meant to be French required suppressing not only the critics who were themselves
French (and not Muslim) but also the Muslims (many of
whom were French citizens) who offered conflicting evidence
about the meanings of their religious identifications and of the
place of the headscarf in them.
The study of political discourse is best undertaken through
close readings of arguments advanced in their specific political
and historical contexts. Without history we arent able to grasp
the implications of the ideas being advanced; we dont hear the
resonances of words; we dont see all of the symbols containedfor examplein a piece of cloth that serves as a veil.
For that reason this book is centered on the politics of headscarf controversies in Francea country whose history I have
been studying for almost forty years. There are, of course,
insights I offer that have more general application. These insights are based on my belief that we need to recognize and negotiate differences, even those that seem irreduciblean outlook many French commentators would dismiss as American
and multiculturalist (synonymous in their view). To be sure, my
ideas are an expression of my political outlook, but its not so
much an American way of thinking as it is a particular understanding of what democracy requires in the present context.
There are many Americans who do not share my views, just as
there is a significant minority in France, many of whom I cite
in the course of this book, who do share them.
These reflections about processes of politics and the handling of differences are not confined to national contexts; they
have wider application. The objectification of Muslims; the attribution of their differences to a single, inassimilable culture;
the idea that a secular way of life is being threatened by fundamentalistsall this is evident in the reaction of Western European leaders to Muslim immigrants in their midst. Still, the
specific ways in which these ideas are expressed and implemented as policy differ according to national political histories.
These histories are critical for our understanding of the Muslim problem in Europe. For that reason I have confined my
analyses to France, not only to gain the depth this issue requires, but also to highlight the local nature of the imagined
general conflict between Islam and the West. It is, of
course, true that there is a global dimension to these conflicts,
the more so as the Middle East becomes a central strategic
concern of American foreign policy, the site for the enduring
war against terrorism, and as identification with a transnational Islam becomes the basis for rallying political opposition
to the West in general and to the United States in particular.
But, I argue, the situation of Muslim immigrants in Western
European countries can be fully grasped only if the local context is taken into account. So, for example, a nations policy for
naturalizing immigrants plays a part in its reception of Muslims; the experience of Pakistanis in England differs from that
of Algerians in France; that of Turks in Germany is different
yet again, while Bulgarias Muslims are not immigrants at all.
We dont learn very much by lumping all of these cases together into one Muslim problem. In fact, we exacerbate the
problem we seek to address. I think that exactly this kind of
heightening of difficulties was produced in France by the ways
in which politicians, public intellectuals, and the media re-
sponded to the fact of a growing population of Muslim immigrants in their midstimmigrants whose diversities were reduced to a single difference that was then taken to be a threat
to the very identity of the nation.
This book is a study of the political discourse of those
French republicans who insisted that the only way to deal with
what they perceived to be the threat of Islamic separatism was
to ban the headscarf. There are not many Muslim voices in this
book, in part because there werent many to be heard during
the debates. The headscarf controversies were largely an affair
of those who defined themselves as representatives of a true
France, with North Africans, Muslims, and immigrants consigned to the periphery. I do consider the many meanings the
veil may have for Muslims and arguments among them about
how and whether to assimilate to French standards, but only
briefly and then as a way of highlighting the inconsistencies of
French characterizations of them. This is not a book about
French Muslims; it is about the dominant French view of them. I
am interested in the way in which the veil became a screen
onto which were projected images of strangeness and fantasies
of dangerdanger to the fabric of French society and to the
future of the republican nation. I am also interested in the way
in which the representation of a homogeneous and dangerous
other secured a mythic vision of the French republic, one and
indivisible. I explore the many factors feeding these fantastic
representations: racism, postcolonial guilt and fear, and nationalist ideologies, including republicanism, secularism, abstract
individualism, and, especially, French norms of sexual conduct
taken to be both natural and universal. Indeed, I argue that the
representation of Muslim sexuality as unnatural and oppressive
when compared to an imagined French way of doing sex intensified objections to the veil, grounding these in indisputable
moral and psychological conviction.
In France many of those who supported a ban on headscarves
insisted they were protecting a nation conceived to be one and
indivisible from the corrosive effects of communautarisme
(which I have translated as communalism). By that term, they
do not mean exactly what Americans do by communitarianism. In France communautarisme refers to the priority of group
over national identity in the lives of individuals; in theory there
is no possibility of a hyphenated ethnic/national identityone
belongs either to a group or to the nation. (In fact, of course,
there are French Muslims who were recognized as such at the
end of the Algerian War, but that history wa …
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