Book Review: Joan Scott's "Politics of the Veil", Racism and Xenophobia in French Religious Policy

By Doctor Comrade

Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

In 2004, France’s government banned conspicuous signs of religious affiliation from its public schools. Although the ban applied to all religions, including Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, and large Christian crosses, the ban primarily targeted young Muslim women who wore headscarves because the scarves were allegedly symbols of Islamic extremism and oppression. In Politics of the Veil, however, Joan Wallach Scott complicates the idea that Muslim headscarves were banned in France because they were symbolic of insidious Islamic politics. According to Scott’s analysis of French discourse on the subject, the prohibition stems from France’s xenophobia towards Algerian immigrants, which manifested in racist and paternalistic views towards France’s Muslim population. These attitudes drove France’s paradoxical attempt to assimilate the supposedly inassimilable Muslims. For the ban, the French appealed to three aspects of their republican values: secularism, individual liberty, and sexual freedom. The ban’s proponents alleged that Muslim veils were incompatible with French republicanism, which stressed the importance of eschewing displays of religious affiliation in public. They also argued that Islam threatened republicanism by stripping Muslim women of the individual liberty to choose to wear or not wear the headscarf. Lastly, they contended that Muslim women were deprived of sexual freedom by a veil that prevented them from being equal to Muslim men. Scott traces the ways in which French racism undergirded these three attitudes, and concludes that French racism accounts for the ban.

At the heart of Scott’s argument is how French society holds racist views of Muslims. She uses historian George Fredrickson’s definition of racism, which maintains that racism “has two components: difference and power. It originates from a mind set that regards ‘them’ and ‘us’” and therefore coexistence can only happen “on the basis of domination and subordination.” Scott characterizes the French perspective on Muslims in this way, noting that “Muslims/Arabs have been marked as a lesser people, incapable of improvement and… [assimilation]” (45). In terms of difference, most French people’s views of Muslims were shaped by newspapers that reported on “the East” and described Arabs as uneducated and exotic. When poor Muslims began immigrating to France in search of jobs, “the conditions under which they lived and worked… [exacerbated] differences” (50–51). This helped form the view that Arabs were poor, dirty, and culturally inferior. The most important link in Scott’s argument is how views towards immigrants showed that there was “no distinction… between Muslims and Arabs…. Ethnicity and religion were taken to be a single package,” so cultural inferiority was racialized (44). In terms of power and  subordination, the French imagined a “war [that] pitted ‘the Muslim community’ against ‘France,’ as if each were a unified whole,” so the French saw themselves in conflict with an entire race of people with different and inferior values (73). This cultural clash meant that “North Africans caused the racism they so resented. The conclusion, repeatedly, was that unless North Africans gave up Islam they could not become French(81, emphasis added). For Scott, passing the ban on veils allowed the French to subordinate Islam  by “insisting on the timeless superiority of French ‘civilization’ in the face of a changing world” (89). In essence, that attitude of superiority was justified by racial beliefs.

The French explicitly called on secularism to justify the ban, and Scott argues that those appeals embodied thinly veiled racism. Secularism, or laïcité, is a fundamental part of French republicanism, which the headscarf contravened in two ways: it violated the separation of church and state, and “the veil is an emblem of radical Islamist politics” (2–4). Allowing young women to wear the veil in public schools was a reflection of how religion could intrude into the public space. Schools were seen as particularly important areas of public space because they were “the sacred secular space of the schoolroom, the crucible in which French citizens are formed. What was at stake… was nothing less than the future of the nation, the unity of the social body” (90). In this way, Scott argues that secularism was key to unity, and unity is simply another form of assimilation. By forcing young women to remove their headscarves and stripping them of their overt religious and racial identity, the French could assimilate them into the larger social body. Only by removing religion from the public space could France claim to be helping its Muslim population. In essence, they saw Islam as holding Muslims back and keeping them inferior. France’s secular principles were meant to be “a sign of modernity, the opening to democracy, the triumph of reason…. The state becomes modern… by suppressing or privatizing religion because it is taken to represent the irrationality of tradition” (95). The ban, therefore, not only protected the secular state from religious interference, but it also encouraged Muslims to abandon radical Islam and embrace a modern French identity.

Appealing to laïcité was a way to discredit Islam as a worldview that is incommensurate with modernity or republicanism, and a way to assert the inferiority of its adherents. In this way, “secularism… became an ideological tool in an anti-Muslim campaign. It was another way of putting Muslim populations outside the bounds of ‘France’ by deeming their religion and their culture not only unacceptably different but dangerous” (97). By labeling Muslims as inherently different, the French demanded national unity and assimilation to rid themselves of those differences. In this way, France created a “dual construction, France versus its Muslims, [as] an operation in virtual community building…. [A] very particular, historically specific political discourse… which insisted on assimilation as the only way for Muslims to become French” (7–8). This discourse relied on racial ideals that branded Muslims as inferior. The veil demonstrated how Muslims resisted secularism and modernity and therefore resisted assimilation that would promote them from inferiority. For the French, secularism meant conformity to a pre-existing French identity. In terms of the school, “Those who did not conform in advance, who were not already ‘French,’ fell outside the purview of the universal… commonality [that] was a prerequisite for membership in the educational community…. This was another way of saying that Muslims could never be French” (103). Without a common belief in private religion, Muslims would always be inferior.

The French government claimed that the veil not only infringed upon secularism’s mandates but also the individual liberty of young Muslim women. Following the same logic as appeals to secularism, “Those who supported the ban conceived of it as a valiant action by the modern French state to rescue girls from the obscurity and oppression of traditional communities” (125). In this way, the secular state was supposedly attempting to liberate Muslim women from the tyranny of tradition. But according to Scott, these sentiments revealed the three perceptions the French had of the veil. Wearing a veil was “delusional (overcome by irrational sentiments), dishonest (acting as agents of political Islam), or, most likely, forced by (male) family members into acts they would otherwise refuse. From this perspective, wearing the veil did not represent a choice that could be respected as such” (125). In this case, delusion and male intervention were linked to Muslim women’s inability to choose whether or not to wear the veil. By banning the veil in schools, the French government could remove the irrationality of the veil by educating the women it allegedly oppressed. This would also remove the oppressive power men maintained over women in dictating their outward appearance. In essence, the French government would ensure that Muslim women had the ability to choose their clothing, as long as that choice adhered to French conceptions of proper dress. This perspective leads to Scott’s declaration that this kind of racist attitude “undermines the very democracy it is meant to promote” (182).

In that way, appealing to individual liberty posits that Muslims are not capable of making the correct decision because of their supposed racial inferiority. Muslim women could not be trusted with their own decisions because they were irrational, which was a product of their allegiance to Islamic traditionalism and backwardness. And Muslim men could not be trusted to decide the communal obligations of Muslim women because of the same reasons. By refusing to assimilate, Muslims would retain their irrationality and innate inferiority, according to the French government, and therefore it had to intervene so “[the state] would choose the true path of emancipation for them. (In effect, responsibility was being passed from one set of fathers to another.)” (130–131). The French government’s intercession demonstrates its previously-entrenched racial attitudes. Scott argues that they believed that “free individuals would never willingly choose the veil. The primary conclusion… was that young girls… had been forced… to publicly proclaim their subordination” (130). This presents a particular version of freedom held by the French supporters of the ban that was based on racism. For supporters, freedom never meant the ability to choose to wear the veil, but rather the obligation to adhere to republican principles. Implicitly, devotion to republicanism would mean only having the freedom to choose not to wear the veil. This subtle yet powerful distinction illustrates for Scott the ways French politicians have to reconcile disparate parts of republicanism like secularism and individual choice in “ways that acknowledge [difference] rather than refusing to engage it” (180).

The veil also represented a version of unacceptable sexuality. Proponents of the ban carefully selected its wording in order to maximize its effectiveness while minimizing its controversy. Scott’s analysis of these discursive strategies reveals the means by which the government disempowered Muslim women in particular. She argues that the government picked the word “conspicuous” for the ban because “there was something objective about it and yet objectionable…. The legislators opted for ‘discreet’ as a way of distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable signs” (152). In effect, the opposition of conspicuousness and discretion allowed legislators to target overt signs of religion like headscarves in the clearest way possible without being hindered by vaguer words like “ostentatious” that carry different connotations. However, Scott identifies the sexual connotations “carried by the words the lawmakers chose. When ‘ostentatious’ or ‘conspicuous’ refers to an excessive display on or by a body, especially if it’s a woman’s body, it conveys a sense of erotic provocation” (152). She deconstructs the paradoxical nature of how clothing that covers more of the body than Western clothing could be more sexual, which leads her to conclude that veils carried the over-determined symbol of sexualizing the female body by de-sexualizing it, and therefore it represented an alternative, non-conformist, strange sexuality. Moreover, when the French linked the veil to sexualized bodies, it engendered the sense that the veil “was an expression of Islam’s strict segregation of the sexes” (157). This segregation violated the republican value of equality of the sexes. Sexualizing the body by de-sexualizing the face illustrated the gendered divisions that French society was trying to remove from itself (154).

These notions of sexuality reflected how Islam was sexually and racially incompatible with a French way of life. The question of visibility highlighted how “The issue of covered or uncovered sexuality… was proof of the irreconcilable difference between the ‘culture’ of Islam and France” (156). The French believed a woman had to be uncovered to be both a sexually free individual and member of the French community. By clinging to an ideology that the French saw as racially inferior, Muslim women in particular could never be fully French. Scott sees sexual equality as “a primordial value” in French society, and therefore “[those] who don’t share this value… are not only different but inferior—less evolved, if capable at all of evolution… [which] adds up to sexual incompatibility” (173–174). The word “primordial” is crucial because it implies that there are conditions that have to be met in order to develop or evolve; in this case, Scott applies that term to sexuality because it constitutes an essential element of equality and therefore French republicanism. Another argument Scott raises is how Muslim women compare to French women. She quotes Saïda Kada, author of One Veiled, the Other Not, to point out that the question was not about the humanity of each Muslim woman, but “the capacity of women to live up to Western models” (165–166). Kada’s use of the term “models” nicely demonstrates the sexuality problem. “Models” can refer to fashion models, who often wear bikinis or lingerie in advertisements that present a standard for women to live up to, which would be an impossible standard for veiled women. “Models” can also mean sociological models, which would suggest that Muslim women cannot conform to the Western ideal of sexuality. In both senses of the term, “models” shows how Western conceptions of what is racially proper cannot match those of Muslim women.

Although the discourse supporting the ban on headscarves drew on a multitude of complex legal, social, and ethical justifications, Joan Scott skillfully demonstrated how they were all reinforced and sustained by racism. Appeals to secularism, individual freedom, and sexuality all relied on existing stereotypes about French Muslims as irrationally traditionalist, backwards, and repressed. Because Islam was linked to race by previous experiences with Arabs in the context of colonialism and immigration, the French assumed that by disallowing public displays of Islam that they could improve the racial inferiority of French Muslims. However, as Scott demonstrated, the racial attitudes of the French supporters of the ban contradicted and undermined their own republican principles, principles which they relied on to defend the ban.