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.
Joan Wallach Scott is the Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her books include Parite!: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism and Gender and the Politics of History.
"Brilliant, crisp, and cogently argued. Joan W. Scott's novel and trenchant discursive analysis exposes the prejudices of the reductionist French versions of secularism and feminism regarding Islam and French Muslims from North African and Arab origins. The study is illuminating far beyond the French case, as former colonial and/or working subjects struggle for integration and recognition of their difference."—Abdellah Hammoudi, Princeton University
"Carefully argued, insightful and humane, Joan Scott's The Politics of the Veil is far and away the best account of France's identity crisis that was signaled by the famous headscarf affair. The final chapter, on the symbolic meanings of the headscarf/veil, is the most original and brilliant piece of writing that I have read on this topic. This is an indispensable book, transcending the particularity of French obsessions and forcing the reader to think about wider political problems that concern us all."—Talal Asad, author of On Suicide Bombing
"Scott traces the history and politics of veil controversies in France and draws apart intertwined strands, starting with the legacy of racism from the colonial past. She persuasively argues for the negotiation of cultural and religious differences rather than their negation. This book will be required reading for all those concerned with the integration of Muslims into Western Christian societies."—Beth Baron, author of Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics
"This is an important and timely book that will challenge the dominant terms used to debate the French government's ban on the veil in public schools. Through a careful analysis of historical and contemporary French discourse on Muslims and Arabs, Scott helps us see how the controversy over the veil is indexical of a deep paradox that haunts the ideology of French Republicanism of which the principle of laïcité is a crucial part."—Saba Mahmood, author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject