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The Politics of the Veil by Joan Wallach Scott

by Irmak Ertuna
23 Feb 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of Joan Wallach Scott (2010) The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

“In the end it’s not because of Islam that we stay at home, but because of French society” (p. 179). This testimony reproduced in Joan Wallach Scott’s book The Politics of the Veil sums up the current plight of Muslim women in France. Indeed, the book, as well as the debates circulating on the issue of the veil, reveals more about French society and its assumptions regarding equality and democracy than it does about Islam. Scott focuses on the dominant French view of Muslim citizens via the symbol of the veil and tackles the issue in relation to four separate but inevitably related topics: racism, secularism, individualism, and sexuality. The French government’s 2004 law that instituted the ban of headscarves and the veil from public schools because they constitute “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation initiates the discussion undertaken in this book. However, the discussion is not confined to the debates that proliferated in contemporary French society, but spans a history of colonialism and encounters with Islam.

Scott’s pointed analysis, which links French colonial history with contemporary public policy on immigration, demonstrates that the issue of the veil is one of representation and imagination of Islam as the Other. Her recounting of the colonialist anxiety at the face of veiled Muslim women in early colonial history as well as her discussion of the particular place of the veil in Algerian resistance against France, forces the reader to consider the subtext of the ban on headscarves. Scott writes, “[R]acism was the subtext of the headscarf controversy, but secularism was its explicit justification” (p. 90). Indeed, when closely scrutinized, pro-ban arguments that use the French version of secularism (laïcité which defines not only the separation of church from state, but also the state’s role as the protector of individuals from religious order) as a unique and exceptional republican premise often downplay the fact that Catholic culture has an embedded place within the nation, while the demands of the Jewish and Muslim population in the public space are viewed as “communalism.” In this sense, the veil, although worn by a minority of Muslim women in France, becomes a major issue precisely because it triggers anxieties about immigration and assimilation that far-right French parties champion and that the government mobilizes with populist aspirations. With references to the history of racism and the understanding of secularism, Scott reveals how the practice and culture of the Muslim population in France is considered not only a threat to the universalist republican idea but also a failure with respect to the French state’s attempt to create conditions of a democratic and equal co-existence for its citizens.

Similarly, pro-ban opinions on the veil that posit its repression of individual freedom, as well as the complete negation of the opinion that the veil might be a legitimate self-expression for those who wear it, are linked to the dominant French establishment’s perception of Islam as a monolithic backwards culture. The champions of the so-called emancipation of women often overlook the fact that patriarchy and women’s oppression is not a phenomenon unique to Islam. In one of her most incisive chapters, which discusses sexuality, Scott argues that “Islam’s insistence on recognizing the difficulties posed by sexuality revealed more than republicans wanted to see about the limits of their own system” (154). When sexuality is at stake, the discussion of the veil has much to offer as it puts some feminist ideas to the test. Scott’s lucid analysis of the arguments of pro-ban feminists reveals a telling paradox: when it comes to the veil, those who traditionally criticize the ways in which visibility of the body objectifies and confers a phallocentric female identity to women suddenly dismiss such arguments and readily accept that by denying visibility to female body, Islam also denies female sexuality.

It is at this point in the discussion of sexuality in relation to debates on headscarves that Scott’s analysis would benefit from a further discussion of contemporary Islamic theories on women and sexuality. She includes the ideas of some Muslim feminists, but without an outline of the dominant Islamic views that these Muslim feminists also write against, her analysis remains unsubstantiated in its approach to Islam’s views on family, sexuality, and gender. In the issues of gender and family, Muslim feminists usually present more progressive views than both those who espouse the dominant Islamic paradigm and their republican feminist counterparts in France. Nevertheless, the strength of her analysis lies in her solid exposition of how Islamic theory problematizes sexuality through the veil and makes it explicit while the French determination to make bodies visible denies that sexuality is a problem for republican political theory.

That the veil is a symbol for all parties of the debate is a well-established fact. For example, in a country like Turkey, the secularist elites, who held state power for a long time and were crushed by the victory of the popular conservative party, still conceive of headscarves as a symbol of all that goes against the founding premises of the republic (the first and foremost being secularism). On the other hand, for those who challenge the ban on headscarves in public spaces in Turkey, the veil is a symbol of struggle against the ruling elites who denied a majority their rights of citizenship and exhibited explicit scorn for their lifestyle. However, Scott’s book is strictly about France and she remarks that each particular socio-historical context gives rise to different public policies as well as different discourses on the veil. There is virtue in analyzing the politics of the veil within well-drawn territorial limits. Yet the similarities and contrasts within different countries, as well as the existence of Islam as an international community begs a further dialogue between scholars writing in the same field. Indeed, Scott’s clear analysis could benefit from the works of sociologists and political scientists from other countries (such as Nilüfer Göle or Deniz Kandiyoti from Turkey) who have worked specifically on the issue of the veil and who have produced remarkable analyses on the relationship between the veil, the West, Islam, secularism, patriarchy, and modernization.

As Scott makes clear within the purview of France, one similarity to separate experiences of the veil in the public space is certain: discussion and policy-making on the issue of the veil rarely includes the voices of those who actually wear it. She provides striking testimony from French women who wear headscarves but the extent to which she was able to truly incorporate their voices is questionable. It seems that many books such as this need to be written to hear the voices of women, who want their equal part in public life.  In the end, Scott succeeds in revealing how the inability of French government’s failure to address the issue of the veil meaningfully underlines its current inability to create a country where the co-existence of differences, rather than celebration of what is common or the same, is the basis of community.

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Ph.d candidate in the comparative literature department of Binghamton University (SUNY). Interests include historical avant-gardes, technology, and contemporary Marxism. Currently living and teaching in Istanbul.
All posts by: Irmak Ertuna | Email

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