Reviewed by Beverly M. Weber (Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Colorado at Boulder)
Published on H-German (April, 2008)
Revealed by the Veil: Understanding France's Headscarf Debates
Three waves of "headscarf debates," with peaks in 1989, 1994, and 2003, have commanded extensive attention in French discussions of Muslim citizens of France. As the French debates coincided with, perhaps even triggered, waves of attention to issues of violence against women from Muslim communities in Germany, the French case not only provides an inevitable case for comparison but is a crucial context for understanding the headscarf debates taking place across Europe. Joan Wallach Scott's careful book exploring the roles played by racism, secularism, individualism, and sexuality in arguments for a headscarf ban in French public schools is an excellent, accessible starting point.
Before examining Scott's work, it is important to note that the French case superficially exhibits several differences from the German case, in which Fereshta Ludin sued the province of Baden-Württemberg for the right to wear a headscarf while working as a public schoolteacher. In France, the first wave of controversy was sparked by the 1989 expulsion of three girls wearing headscarves in Creil, north of Paris. Though the Conseil d'Etat reviewed the case and ruled that the wearing of the headscarf alone could not warrant student expulsion, the Minister of Education continued to circulate documents urging schools to protect the principle of laïcité in the schoolroom when considering headscarf cases. The third, most notorious ministerial circular was circulated in 1994; it distinguished between "discreet" and "ostentatious" symbols. In 2004 a law was passed that retained this distinction by banning all "ostentatious" religious symbols, such as the headscarf, the kippah, and large crosses; discreet symbols such as small Fatima's hands, crosses, or Stars of David are permitted. This law differs significantly from most recent laws passed in Germany. While Berlin now bans all religious symbols in the classroom, other laws passed in five federal states prohibit Islamic symbols but specifically permit Jewish or Christian symbols.
Scott's book is not the first scholarship to analyze the French case and its relationship to a French identity founded on notions of a universal secularism, but Scott's work is significant in its contextualization of contemporary dominant discourses around the headscarf ban with the histories inflecting them in order to reveal the larger questions at stake. She explicitly cautions that this book is not a book about French Muslims but rather about the dominant view of French Muslims (p. 10). Scott examines the overdetermined interest in the headscarf, which was often conflated with the veil in the French case, and convincingly argues that racism, secularism, individualism, and sexuality served as interrelated themes that functioned to "[draw and fortify] a boundary around an imagined France, one whose reality was secured by excluding dangerous others from the nation" (p. 18). The impacts of this discourse, she suggests, have been far-reaching, not the least because they have "provided a firmer community of identification for Muslims than might otherwise have existed" (p. 18).
After a chapter that sketches out the overall controversies, Scott structures her book around these four themes. Chapter 2, "Racism," provides a larger historical context for the contemporary controversy by exploring the multiple meanings of the veil during French colonialism. Introducing her discussion with reflections on her observations of everyday racisms while researching in south-central France in 1967, she then provides a brief overview of the racisms inherent in colonial discourse, in particular in the notion of a civilizing mission that often pointed to the veil as one legitimation for colonialism. This history informs contemporary policies as well as popular discourses, in which the veil continues to function paradoxically, to connote both excessive sexuality and its denial.
Chapter 3, "Secularism," turns to the more explicit justification of the prohibition of "conspicuous" signs of religious affiliation in public schools: namely, the defense of French secularism (laïcité) as a founding aspect of French national unity. Ironically, as Scott argues, the debates themselves reveal the ambiguities that inhere in the supposedly clearly established boundaries between public and private, political and religious. By considering the history of secularism in France, Scott suggests, we can recognize that the presumption of a French secularism that relied on a strict exclusion of religion from the schools runs counter to historical evidence. Scott seems unsure about how precisely to theorize secularism: it and religion could be "parallel systems of interpretation" (p. 96), the form of laïcité promulgated by those in favor of the headscarf ban could be an absolutism "as unbending as the Islam it purported to combat" (p. 106), or secularism was "conceived as the truth of French national identity rather than as the ground on which such identity could be negotiated" (p. 120). Her conclusion, however, suggests that such lack of theoretical clarity is irrelevant. Rather, one must consider multiple and alternative forms of secularism in order to seek a more effective vision of community, and further understand the concrete effects of a policy on participation in democratic institutions such as public schools to find the most productive form of secularism.
The fourth content chapter interrogates the rhetoric of individualism. In this chapter, she departs from her almost exclusive focus on the dominant discourses to devote attention to girls' motivations for wearing headscarves. This juxtaposition raises several interesting paradoxes: the legal attempt to "save" Muslim girls from a presumed culture of compulsion is confronted by Muslim girls' desire to use the veil as an expression of personal identity, a desire made even more urgent by the totalizing arguments of the legislators. At the same time that the legislators claim to emancipate the girls from the cultural uniformity imposed by the scarf, they also impose a homogeneous notion of French national culture in which no space remains for an individual identity inflected by affiliation with Islam.
Perhaps because it most clearly draws on Scott's excellent previous work on the challenges gender poses to notions of "parity," equality, and universalism, the fifth chapter on sexuality is the most interesting chapter of the book. She convincingly argues that arguments for a headscarf ban paradoxically paint the veil as a marker of both an excess of sexuality as well as a denial of sexuality. It is just this paradox that points out the limits of what Scott refers to as the French gender system. She also points to a paternalistic attitude on the part of some feminists seeking the "salvation of their less fortunate immigrant sisters" (p. 172), an attitude incidentally also relevant in the German context. Unfortunately, she glosses over the important challenge posed by the group ni putes ni soumises, an organization made up of mostly immigrant feminists. Ni putes ni soumises supported the headscarf ban but has opposed many of the anti-Islam discourses taken up during the discussion. This neglect prohibits Scott from more fully considering the implications of the headscarf debate for anti-racist feminisms in France.
Readers may be concerned that Scott has engaged very little with larger discussions about secularism, modernity, and Islam in Europe taking place in popular and scholarly venues. Many scholars writing on this topic, including myself, have faced this difficulty, perhaps due to the blinders imposed by disciplinary boundaries. The chapter on secularism, for example, would have provided a richer understanding of the multiple and changing notions of secularism had it engaged more thoroughly with anthropologist Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003), which she briefly cites in the subsequent chapter only in order to consider Muslim notions of autonomy. In this vein, while Scott is to be commended for making careful reference to Muslim women's positions on the headscarf debate in chapter 5, that discussion would also have been even richer had she more thoroughly considered groups, such as ni putes ni soumises, that supported the headscarf ban without rejecting Islam. Of course, Scott clearly states that this is not a book about Muslims in Europe but about dominant understandings of them, and she succeeds in pointing to a range of positions in the Muslim community. Even so, her call for the consideration of alternative forms of secularism would seem to point to the urgency for scholarly and popular discussions that would more carefully consider the range of Muslim positions as well as the histories of Islam that are as relevant to the discussion as are the histories of colonialisms.
These minor criticisms should not overshadow the difficult and important scholarship that Scott has taken on. Her book should be viewed as an important, provocative contribution to scholarly discussions of the future of Islam in Europe.
. Beverly Weber, Headscarves or Miniskirts? Islam in Germany, Gendered Modernities, unpublished manuscript.
. Beverly Weber, "Cloth on her Head, Constitution in Hand: Germany's Headscarf Debates and the Cultural Politics of Difference," German Politics and Society 22 (2004): 33-63.
. Norma Moruzzi provides an excellent analysis of the early headscarf debates that also responds to earlier, less nuanced academic discussions; see Norma Moruzzi, "A Problem with Headscarves: Contemporary Complexities of Political and Social Identity," Political Theory 22 (1994): 653-672. For an examination of the more recent controversies that eventually led to a national ban on students wearing headscarves in public schools, see Jane Freedman, "Secularism as a Barrier to Integration? The French Dilemma," International Migration 43 (2004): 5-28.
. Though Scott does not make reference to her, Freedman also provides an interesting analysis of the problems posed by the headscarf affair to antiracist feminist strategizing in France in "'L'affaire des Foulards': Problems of Defining a Feminist Antiracist Strategy in French Schools," Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice, ed. France Winddance Twine and Kathleen M. Blee (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 295-309.
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Beverly M. Weber. Review of Scott, Joan Wallach, The Politics of the Veil.
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