The Politics of the Veil

The Politics of the Veil

The Politics of the Veil

The Politics of the Veil


In 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.


Convening in a church's basement daycare center, a British Christian group holds a “how to” workshop on heckling Muslims who lecture in London's Hyde Park Speakers Corner. After hearing that half the Dutch Muslims don't speak the language, the Parliament of the Netherlands, a country known for centuries of religious and political tolerance, debates whether such individuals should be compelled to take Dutch language classes. And in the German Bundestag, politicians contemplate forbidding imams from preaching in Arabic. But it is in France where public protest and government sanctions against Muslims first took hold.

In her compelling book The Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott points out that France initiated the discussion in the late 1980s about prohibiting public school girls from wearing headscarves. This discussion culminated in 2004 with such a ban. Two years later, the French government made it illegal to deny that the Turkish killing of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 was genocide.

These sanctions have inflamed rather than eliminated the extremism that led to the commuter-train bombings in Madrid by a Moroccan terrorist cell in 2003; the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, allegedly by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim radical in 2004; and the bombs that exploded in Lon-

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