The Politics of the Veil
Joan Wallach Scott
n 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 Veil is 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 Veil calls 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.
“Scott does a good job of conveying the hysteria that surrounded the foulard debate in France…Scott’s broad and exhaustive research makes for a bracing account of the debate.”–Laila Lalami, The Nation
“Veil-bashing is suddenly socially acceptable among not merely tabloid-reading Little Englanders, but also metropolitan sophisticates…Why should a bit of cloth so threaten the French republic? That is the central question posed by [this] subtle new study…Many French commentators cast the debate about the veil as an issue about Muslims, Islam and integration. Scott, a distinguished historian at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, shows that it revealed rather more about the French themselves.”–Carla Power, New Statesman
“This book is a powerful denunciation of the French government and people whom Scott labels as racist, discriminatory, and intolerant of Muslim immigrants primarily from North Africa. In instituting a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools, the author claims that France has gone too far in its policies of strict secularism and adherence to the values of republicanism in which citizenship is conceived of as an individual matter devoid of ethnic and religious content. . . . [A] fascinating piece of scholarship.”–S. Majstorovic, Choice
“It is difficult to do justice to the rigour and subtlety of this important book, written by a distinguished historian with previous works on gender and democratic politics. It should be read not only by those interested in the French situation but also by anyone who is concerned by the hysteria surrounding Muslims in Europe. It clarifies the ideas behind current debates on multiculturalism, assimilation and integration, and points the way towards a solution.”–Mary Hossain, Journal of Islamic Studies
Chapter 1: The Headscarf Controversies 21
Chapter 2: Racism 42
Chapter 3: Secularism 90
Chapter 4: Individualism 124
Chapter 5: Sexuality 151
Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Joan Wallach Scott:
- The Public Square
Ruth O’Brien, Series Editor