Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

The "Headscarf Affairs": French Universalism Put to the Test

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

The "Headscarf Affairs": French Universalism Put to the Test

Article excerpt

Be it a simple headscarf tied beneath the chin, a hidjab which carefully bands the forehead and veils the throat, or a niqab which hides the entire body from view, across the past three decades, the Muslim veil has become a sign of gender and socio-political conflict throughout the world. It has become a symbol that cannot be contained by national borders, a marker of gender, a marker of sex, a religious sign and a political tool. It is emblematic of the acceleration of globalization, its advantages and its ambiguities. In other words, this object and its impact on the women who wear it occupy a central place in gender studies today because of the fundamental questions the Muslim veil raises about the place of women in public space.

I myself teach in a French public university, Université de Paris 8, located in Saint-Denis, a suburban town north of Paris, home to a large Muslim community in the most heavily Muslim "département" of all of France (this is an estimate based on unofficial studies as, by law, the French government keeps no statistics on the race, religion or ethnic origins of its citizens). In my university there are many veiled students, representing all styles of the hidjab. None wear the niqab. By law, a law which went into effect April 11, 2011, it is banned from public space, because, as the official government slogan goes, "the Republic puts forth an open face" (my translation of "la République se vit à visage découvert''). That said, before the passage of the law, I had never seen a student in niqab on campus.

Today I am in daily contact with veiled students, and I've seen their numbers increase in the past ten years. When I began teaching in this university in 1991, there were no veiled students on campus, which does not mean that the Muslim veil was absent from public space or public debate. In fact, the French context of twenty years ago is essential to an understanding of the veil's global status today and its role as a destabilizing element in contemporary definitions of both feminism and of the patriarchate.

But before I travel back to that period in time, I would like to briefly outline the framework of my demonstration and its purpose. I will be concentrating on the place of the Muslim veil in contemporary French society, defined politically as an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.1 The key word here is "secular," a relatively precise but inadequate translation of the French term "laïque," to which I will later return. Focusing on the French context today I must inevitably transcend national borders, and I will pay particular attention to the example of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the veil, or chador as it is called in this particular context, is imposed on women in a society where religion provides both a social and a political code and where every infraction represents a breaking of divine law. As for temporal limits, in any discussion of the Muslim veil in France, it is impossible to ignore colonial history. In the case of the former French colony of Algeria, from the earliest years of a French presence, beginning in 1830, the veil and the women beneath it represented a political stake. In the post-colonial context, the Muslim veil raises difficult questions about racism and sexism.

Ultimately I want to ask if it is possible for the Muslim veil and the Muslim women who wear it to find a place in the public space of the indivisible French Republic; and, if so, what would their presence mean for the universal values, "liberté, égalité, fraternité," upon which that republic has been built.

In October 1989 the Muslim headscarf burst onto the national scene in France because of an isolated incident in a French collège, or middle school, that took place in Créil, a working-class town fifty kilometres north of Paris, with a considerable "immigrant" population.2 On September 18th, the school's principal, basing his decision on his interpretation of "laïcité" (secularism), threatened to expel three girls from his establishment if they did not remove their headscarves. …

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