Unveiling France

An analytical book review of Scott’s “Politics of the Veil”:

Unveiling France

         Joan Wallach Scott’s “Politics of the Veil” is an expose on the controversial French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools (2004). Scott looks at “the hijab – the piece of cloth that became a symbol of the “problem of Islam” for the French Republic” (Scott, 21). She traces the roots of the “affaires des foulards” and the ideology of the French Republic to the 1789 revolution. France’s republicans suggest that the voile is irreconcilable with being a citizen of France. However, Scott successfully proves that the reasons behind the ban run deeper than just a superficial insulation for French values. She argues that the ban should be seen in a historical context of racism, secularism, individualism and sexuality, all of which shape French discourse and opinion. France views assimilation through a counterproductive lens with an artificial homogeneity gaining precedence over “common ground” and respect.

Laïcité, arguably the single most important word in French ideology, sculptured the headscarf debate. Laïcité was “not just any secularism but a special French version, at once more universal than any other and unique to French history and French national character” (Scott, 97). This shows that the term did not imply just a separation of Church and State, but in fact focused on a decidedly more private realm in the sphere of religion. Therefore, any overtly religious symbols seemed antithetical to French universalism. However, Laïcité, much like the Muslim community in France, cannot be defined in plain black and white. French secularism too had different versions, and a “democratic model” of secularism was possible. This was shown by Bauberot’s example, the lone dissenting member of the Stassi commission. Regarding a myth of universalism in France, Scott suggests that a “racist” narrative is shaped as an effect of policies, instead of the “foulard” causation.

French public sentiment, politics and media all indicated that the veil was an oppressive piece of cloth that limited, or even prohibited, a Muslim woman’s integration in society. Nevertheless, Scott presents a case for an increasing number of French women taking up the veil to rebel against such a law. The book’s greatest achievement was a clear structure to present a case that had heavy anti-ban leanings, but at the same time tried to include a wide range of opinions on the issue. In fact, Scott identifies her position as a liberal voice that looks to France through an American lens shaped by ideas of multiculturalism. Thus, the author tries to present a balanced view, though at times it is often stifled as she tries to win a case against the French ban.

In order to analyze Scott’s work, it is essential to explore the text of the March 2004 French law. In article 1, it states:

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 (Scott, 1)

Note here that legally, Muslim women were not singled out. However, Scott asserts that it growing anxiety regarding immigrants, particularly those from the Maghreb with North African and Arab backgrounds were specifically targeted through this law. The Headscarf Controversies were shaped by growing anti-immigration sentiments in domestic politics. This was solidified by the National Front Party’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose hardened anti-immigrant stance tapped “into a set of racist attitudes with deep roots in French history” (Scott, 41).

Fractures in France’s domestic politics may have shaped racist trends, which saw a particular spike in the 1980s. Le Pen fueled racist depictions of “immigrants,” who “breed like rabbits” and upset the “biological equilibrium” (Scott, 71). Le Pen was playing to populist sentiments, and echoing what French society already thought, yet exacerbating racism in the process. Of course, France’s internal struggle towards assimilation was impacted by international events, in particular by the 1989 Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose book Satanic Verses sent ripples through what France saw as a monolithic Muslim world.

The ideas of Islam versus the West, and a “clash of civilizations” are best seen through the 1960s Algerian War, a transformative event in French history that stirred racism against an “other”. The author recounts an incident in the diverse town of Carmaux where he first heard deeply racist comments against Arabs. “These people are animals, they are not Christians; your blacks are Christian. The Arabs don’t live in real houses but in huts, in holes in the ground; they’re uncivilized, uneducated, unclean” (Scott, 44). To readers, such anecdotes seem antithetical to what France claims to represent in modern history, upholding principles of “Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite”; values that are in fact said to have driven the French ban against veils in the first place. However, Scott says that this image of France and French identity is an artificial construction. Thus principles that were in essence democratic in nature began to be tainted by the ugly colors of colonialism and discrimination, particularly against the immigrant community. Even third generation immigrants were seen as different, with identities that were unmistakably anti-French in the eyes of the general public. In fact, even colonial art form showed “subjugation of Algeria was often depicted by metaphors of disrobing, unveiling, and penetration” (Scott, 55). Through this, Scott exemplifies racism which she thinks is deeply embedded in French society.

Ironically, a law that is theoretically designed to help assimilate Muslim women into French society is what sets them even further apart. Scott rightly suggests that individualism was an integral question in the debate. Feminists in France were particularly concerned about what they saw as oppressive Islamic laws which they felt inhibited women from fully participating in French society. Scott says that while this was true, it was lamentable that the law failed to hear Muslim voices in the debate, with Muslim women who wore the scarf – those who would be most impacted by the law – largely absent from public debate. They were heard outside of courtrooms, and the media shied away from them. It is because of this that Scott says “by outlawing the headscarf, the state declared those who espoused Islam in whatever form, to be literally foreigners to the French way of life” (Scott, 149). Individualism could not be reconciled with sameness and French universalism.

In the debate over French versus Muslim identities, gender relations and sexuality were a cause of concern. In Islam, women and men have specialized roles in society, and have limits on gender interactions; this is diametrically opposed to the Republicans’ “French” way of life (Scott, 154). The hijab as a symbol raised dangerous questions about the visibility sexual freedoms, clash of gender systems, and the established gender order that was “natural” and French.

In conclusion, it is evident that France’s 2004 ban on the veil was a result of historical debate, and raised symbolic implications on what it means to be French. The foulard, and later, the voile represented a view diametrically opposed to French universalism. Differences meant dissimilation, which were a threat to national unity. In “True France”, the ideology of the Republic would reign supreme. Communautarisme (Scott, 11) was corrosive to integration, and the hijab represented a path that was not egalitarian. Equality meant sameness in French political discourse. Yet, is precisely this move towards artificial equality and a suppression of differences that lead to greater dissonance in French society. Instead of embracing multiculturalism, and directing it as a positive force, France chose to suppress it in a simplistic definition of the French identity. The hijab became a symbol of Islam, and Islam began to represent traditionalism and a resistance to modernity.

Such a point of view oversimplified an issue that was anything but black and white. The French ban debate is multifaceted, raising elemental questions on class disparity in “immigrant” and “French” populations, the anthropological identity of colonized people, to timeless ideas on “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” (Scott, 5). As the world becomes increasingly globalized, these ideas will continue to stir debate, and it will be integral to respect the complicated nature of discourse and questions.


 Works Cited

Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 2007. Print.


7 Replies to “Unveiling France”

  1. “Man in early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilisation that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times…….!!!!”

    1. A reply by the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Laureate, Tawakel Karman, to a question about her Hijab by journalists and how it was not proportionate with her level of intellect and education…..

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