Joan Wallach Scott discusses the gender implications of a French law banning headscarves in public schools.
On March 15, 2004 when France passed a law banning headscarves in public schools, it set off a firestorm of controversy that split political groups and sparked ferocious disagreements.
The law, which says “the wearing of signs of clothing which conspicuously manifest students’ religious affiliations is prohibited,” singled out items such as large crosses, veils or skull caps.
But according to Joan Wallach Scott
, who spoke on “Cover-Up: French Gender Equality and the Islamic Headscarf,” at the 2009 Academic Symposium, the law was clearly aimed at young Muslim girls.
Scott, the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is known internationally for writings that theorize gender as an analytic category. She is a leading figure in the emerging field of critical history. Her lecture was based on her book The Politics of the Veil
“Professor Scott’s interest in political and intellectual history is something that has been broadly influential. Her work on early feminism from the French Revolution to the radical movements of the 19th century led her to pose fundamental questions about how modern rights-oriented societies accommodate difference—sexual or gender difference, mainly,” said John Savage, associate professor of history
who introduced Scott.
Competing gender systems
Although the headscarf is rarely tied to political radicalism, it has been treated in France as the flag of a Muslim insurgency. Proponents of the law say it upholds France's values of secular liberalism and they regard the headscarf as symbolic of Islam's resistance to modernity. But wearers of the headscarf say it is a symbol of their religious commitment.
Although France claimed the ban was designed to promote the equality of women, Scott presented alternative rationales for the ban, including the country’s anxiety over a Muslim population, a perceived threat to its secular society and national sovereignty, as well as deep-seeded issues rooted in colonialism and racism.
Throughout her lecture, however, Scott argued that gender and sexuality played a significant role in the ban’s creation.
“Until their confrontation with Islam, many French feminists saw the sexual exhibitionism of their society as demeaning to women, because it reduced them to a sexed body,” Scott said. “But in the heat of the headscarf controversy, these concerns were put aside and equality became synonymous with emancipation, which in turn was equated with the visibility of the female body.”
French ban supporters posited their gender system against the Islamic gender system. Since sex and sexuality are constructed differently in these two systems, Scott said, the headscarf pitted the modesty of the Muslim population against France’s ideal of the visible female body.
“Uncovered bodies are no more a guarantee of equality than covered ones. In both systems, women have been defined as inferior to men and their legal rights have been restricted. Although it certainly has been true that many societies with open systems have by now granted some form of equality to women.”
Proponents claimed the veil denied the mixing of the sexes, but Scott said the opposite was actually true. The wearing of headscarves is what allows Muslim girls to attend co-ed schools.
“Girls sought to be identified as French and Muslim, with equal accent on both terms,” Scott said. “They wanted to be recognized as part of France, but not forced to assimilate.”
During a follow-up question and answer session with Nandini Deo, assistant professor of political science
, Scott told the audience that most girls took off their headscarves in order to continue their public school education. A significant portion of the French Muslim community is too poor to send their children to private school. And, in fact, only one Muslim school exists in France despite the fact that there are 6-7 million Muslims in the country.
France is not alone in banning headscarves. Germany, Turkey and most recently Belgium have headscarf bans in place for various groups, including teachers, university students and young school children.
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