Scholar asserts 'cracks in French universalism' seen in headscarf ban

L.A. Cicero Joan W. Scott

At the Humanities Center, Joan W. Scott discussed the politics of the headscarf ban in French schools.

The photograph on the Humanities Center poster summarized the dilemma of dual identity: The protester with her fist raised is wearing the French tricouleur as a headband over her headscarf. The upheld banner behind her reads: "Françaises, Musulmanes" (Frenchwomen, Muslim women).

On March 15, 2004, a French law was passed banning students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in primary and secondary public schools. The law is widely referred to as the "French headscarf ban." Last week, Professor Joan W. Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study, author of the forthcoming Politics of the Veil (Princeton University Press, October 2007), spoke to a capacity crowd at the Humanities Center's Levinthal Hall to explore the complex and underlying motives for the ban. The talk was a Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts.

"The French idea of 'one and indivisible' is different from E Pluribus Unum. There's a lack of any recognition for social difference," Scott said. Yet despite the claims of égalité, the French have "a deep uneasiness about sharing power." Scott outlined the emerging "cracks in French universalism."

The French portray their concept of universalism as "dating back to the French Revolution in a seamless story," she said. However, in the 19th century, class became the "great exception" to equality. After women received the vote in 1945, their inequality "had to be explained away." In the 1990s, gay rights and domestic partnership issues flagged more "exceptions." Now France continues to face the challenges of racism, immigration and religious intolerance.

The headscarf brought several of these issues to a head in a nation where "assimilation is seen as the passport to Frenchness."

One issue is the specter of Muslim inassimilability. Scott recalled that, during the 2005 riots in the Parisian housing projects, then-Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy blamed the troubles on "illegals." However, in the investigations, "they couldn't find many—they were French citizens," some of them second- and third-generation French.

She also pointed out that, in France, the word immigrant "doesn't refer to Portuguese, Spanish, Italians—Europeans or Eastern Europeans"; it only refers to former colonials, further pinpointing the Muslim population as different and problematic.

A second issue: Suffrage granted the vote to women as "abstract individuals," without acknowledging real differences. In France, "equality rests on sameness. Women must strive for abstraction to be equal," Scott said, but "nature has decreed a lack of equality that society cannot correct."

"If we're all the same, why is equality so difficult?" Scott said. She said that, despite its intentions, the laws for gender parity, the subject of her 2005 book Parité!, have not eliminated discrimination in France, where only a handful of women have been appointed heads of major ministries. She cited a recent remark from Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Mélanchon about the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal: "The presidential election is not a beauty contest." The remark illustrated women's perceived "inability to represent the nation, because they represent their sex."

The French response to these issues has been to "insist ever more firmly on the uniqueness of French universalism" and reassert its superiority. In an overreaction and "aggressive defense of homeland" over an "imagined issue," the headscarf was seen as a "flag of Islamic insurgency," although the schoolgirls were rarely tied to political radicalism, Scott said.

"Surely there is a better way of dealing with terrorism besides banning the headscarf," she added.

The headscarf "revealed more than the Republicans wanted to see," Scott said. What it revealed was the disparity between "the psychology of recognition and the psychology of denial."

"The French way involves the denial of a problem," she said. Sex is seen "not only as not dangerous, but a positive influence." Its attitude is characterized by "seductive play between women and men."

Scott said that at the same time the French were making hysterical comparisons between the headscarf and terrorism, other French schoolgirls were making headlines with le string—thong underwear or g-strings worn with very low-cut trousers.

"Le string is considered to be a fashion statement," Scott said. "The headscarf is considered a threat." She cited one female Muslim writer who suggested that, in France, "liberty is measured by the number of sexual acts."

"Islam avoids the contradiction of French Republicanism" because it does not claim an abstract equality for women, Scott said. Headscarves for women and loose clothes for men are "a way of recognizing the potential volatility of the relationships of men and women."

For the Muslim community, "veiling signals the acceptance of sexuality, even to its celebration," within the bounds of marriage and family, Scott said. "Patriarchal? It is, of course. But so is French Republicanism."

Scott presented another image—a cover of Le Figaro magazine in the 1980s. The bust of an anonymous woman is wearing the hajib, with the headline: "Will We Still Be French in 30 Years?"

For Scott, the exposure of breasts on the bust was "of crucial importance," echoing Délacroix's landmark painting Liberty Leading the People. It also symbolizes the French attitude toward sexual exposure. Scott also noted that the cover featured an old-style headscarf with beads, reminiscent of the era of French imperialism in North Africa.

The cover signaled a shift in attitudes from an aggressive attitude that "it needs to be torn off" to the fear that "it's going to be put on us," she said.

In a sometimes heated question-and-answer session the following day, participants challenged Scott's presentation.

One man pointed out that the headscarf was not banned at the university level and that the law applied only at the younger ages. Therefore, he argued, the salient issue was autonomy: Young women could be assumed to make their own decisions; children could not.

A student said Scott was ascribing freedom of choice to girls who are being pressured, often by the men in their environment, and that Scott is presenting a false picture of the students' consciousness of choice.

"When girls wear the string or put on sexy clothes—is that false consciousness?" Scott responded. "We assume it's not a free choice for them, but it goes both ways."

Scott said the young Muslim women were direct in explaining their motives, saying whether they had been coerced by relatives into adopting or abandoning the headscarf. Most claimed modesty and religious observance as their motive.

Others were "adolescent girls rebelling against parental assimilation" with an "anti-West, anti-materialism, anti-imperialist" gesture, Scott said.

When one French student compared the headscarf to female circumcision, Scott countered by saying that a headscarf could not be compared with "irreversible mutilation": "You don't see the pressures and influences going on in your own statements. For you the headscarf represents oppression; for Muslims, it doesn't."

When the same student asserted the ban was part of a general attempt to keep public schools secular, Scott said that no laws had been passed affecting yarmulkes, or Sikh turbans, until the headscarves became a concern. "This is a symbolic stand against Islam."

Another participant suggested that "Frenchness" was being threatened not by Islam itself but by the numbers of immigrants involved.

"The numbers are a problem—though it's still a small proportion of the population, they have the largest Muslim population of any European country. The challenge is not best met by a reassertion of the principles that insist on assimilation. It backfired," Scott said.

In dealing with minorities, she warned against "the notion that if you give an inch you give away everything." She emphasized "modes of accommodation," but cautioned "that negotiation isn't going to happen when adamant, blanket rules are imposed." She recommended "negotiation around what is possible and what is not." For example, "Girls can wear headscarves, but they have to go to gym."

When a student protested that Scott's presentation was one-sided and unfair, Scott responded, "I wasn't offering it as the only way. It's what I think." Attempts to be balanced "are also informed by a political point of view," she responded. "I don't think it's the work of any scholar to be fair and balanced. I leave that to Fox News."