Exposing racism

Issue: 118

Sadie Robinson

Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton University, 2007), £14.95

In 2004 the French government banned “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation in schools. Although the ban seemed to apply to all religions equally, it was clearly targeted at Muslim girls wearing headscarves or “veils” as they were commonly referred to.

A year earlier the then French president, Jacques Chirac, had asserted, “Wearing a veil is a kind of aggression.” Exactly why a tiny minority of schoolgirls had become the focus for such a hysterical campaign is one of the questions The Politics of the Veil seeks to answer.

Joan Wallach Scott points out that the use by the right of the term “veil” to denote headscarves was deliberate. It exaggerated the seriousness of the issue and enabled Islam to be characterised as an extremist faith (although the terms “veil” and “headscarf” are used interchangeably in her book and in this review).

Wallach Scott argues that the banning of the headscarf involved “a defence of the European nation-states at a moment of crisis”. By attacking Islam and defining it as inherently problematic, the French secular state could be held up as the ideal. It followed that anyone refusing to adhere to the secular, republican values of France was somehow backward and dangerous. The idealisation of the French state also meant that real problems of racism and poverty were swept away. “Banning the veil also became a substitute solution for a host of pressing economic and social issues.”

She acknowledges the importance of the response to the 9/11 attacks and Le Pen’s far right National Front party, which legitimised and spread Islamophobic ideas. But, she argues, the roots of the problem lie much further back in French history—in its colonial past—and the veil has a special place in French racism.

French colonialism in Algeria, which began in the 1830s, rested on Islamophobia. Like all colonialism, it was accompanied by a “civilising” ideology, which necessarily meant using racism to define the colonised as inferior. Wallach Scott argues that, in the case of Algerians, “Islam was taken to be at once the cause and the effect of their inferiority.” So becoming “civilised” depended upon renouncing Islam.

Controversially, she also links the language of colonialism (conquest, submission, invasion) explicitly to the rape and abuse that Algerian women suffered at the hands of the colonisers.

The colonisers came to associate the veil with danger, in part because it was quite literally used as a weapon: as a tool for the resistance to transport bombs and weapons through checkpoints. Because the drive against the veil was part of the French project in Algeria, the veil also became a symbol of resistance and independence. As Wallach Scott writes, wearing the veil involves “a sense of defiance…an insistence on the integrity of a history and religion that have for so long been demeaned”.

The book also discusses what “secularism” actually means. Wallach Scott questions the automatic association of “secular” with “modern” and religion with “tradition”. She makes the important point that France cannot straightforwardly be defined as “secular”. For instance, since 1958 the French government has contributed
10 percent of the funding received by private religious schools, and more than two million children attend state-supported Catholic schools. She concludes that “repeated references to the purely secular nature of the nation so misrepresented the history of its accommodations with the Catholic church that opponents of the ban charged supporters with hypocrisy”.

She notes that the defence of secularism was historically about preventing dominant religions from influencing politics. But in France Islam is certainly not a dominant religion. Here “defending secularism” becomes just another excuse for racism.

Wallach Scott also looks at the real problems in French schools, as well as the imaginary problem of the headscarf. The government has cut school budgets and attacked teachers’ pay, and cut spending on social services and community centres in the banlieues the belts of poverty surrounding many French cities. Young people face frustration at the failure of the education system to provide the opportunities it promises. Instead it reinforces class division and hierarchies. This very real crisis in schools, Wallach Scott argues, was attributed to Islam. This was a “delusional fix” that avoided solving the genuine social and economic problems.

Supporters of the ban also claimed they were upholding “individuality” and the right of students to make their own choices. They argued that Muslim girls were forced to wear the headscarf. But, as Wallach Scott notes, the voices of the Muslim girls themselves were largely absent from the public debate in France, and she tries to include some of them in the book. Major reasons given for wearing the headscarf were precisely the expression of individuality and the sense that it gave the girls “a dignity they were otherwise denied”.

Wallach Scott argues that ideas about sexuality and the position of women also inform the debate over the headscarf. Islam is portrayed as oppressing women, whereas France liberates them. But, she argues, the issue of the headscarf raised questions about women’s position in society that France would rather ignore.

Openness about sexuality is often taken as a reflection of women’s “liberation” in Western societies. Wearing the headscarf seems to define sexuality as a private matter, rejecting this version of “liberation”. However, it also denies society the chance to control women’s sexuality. As Wallach Scott puts it, “Out there to see, women’s sexuality was manageable; unseen, it might wreak havoc.”

She points out that, for the feminists who went along with the headscarf ban and accepted the notion that Islam was oppressive to women, the oppression they themselves face is forgotten. Criticisms of French society and the position of women within it are replaced by an identification with that society and a passionate defence of it in the face of the “threat” from Islam.

She concludes by looking at the impact of the ban and developments to prohibit the headscarf in other spheres that followed. It is clear that the effect of the ban has been to further legitimise and entrench Islamophobia. Rather than break down divisions, it has strengthened them. As Islamophobia continues to be a tool in the hands of our rulers, it is important to remember the lessons of the headscarf ban, to understand the politics that lay behind it and its racist implications. This book is a useful reminder of both.