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Joan Scott 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 ground-breaking work has[…]

The “Politics of the Veil” author explains why the culture clash between “secularist” France and Muslim immigrants is rising to a fever pitch.

Question: How did the “headscarf controversies” originate in France?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Starting in 1989 which was the year of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and it’s not accidental that that was the year, there were… there was an attempt by a principal in one school in the outer suburbs of France, which is where large immigrant populations live in kind of ghetto like situations, but this guy decided that he was going to forbid students to come to school in headscarves.  He had political ambitions later.  He ran for office and in fact I’m not sure if he won or not, but he certainly ran for office as a kind of conservative in the more conservative side of things and he forbid these girls to come to school.  They refused to take their headscarves off and a huge controversy ensued.  It’s no accident that it was the bicentennial because people were already very worried because an election in 1988, in a presidential election the right-wing National Front Party, the Front National, had gained, made a considerable showing.  They certainly hadn’t won anything.  They didn’t get to go to the second round, but they got more votes, a larger percentage of the vote than anybody thought they were going to get and so there was a great deal of anxiety in the parties to the left of this extreme right party about what to do and particularly the right-wing parties I think decided they did not want to lose votes that were seeming to go to the far right and that involved, since the far right’s platform was an anti immigrant platform that involved taking a stand on the question of immigration and in France immigrants don’t mean people who come from Portugal or Spain or Italy or other countries of Europe or Western Europe.  It means former colonials from North Africa and West Africa and so the question of what to do about immigrants, how to stop immigration, whether or not they could ever be assimilated into France, whether assimilation had to proceed by doing things like forbidding headscarves, signs of identification with religious or cultural practices that were not thought to be French that fed into this controversy and I think the 1989 part of it, also the bicentennial of the revolution meant that there was a lot of talk about what the republic meant, what Republican principles and ideals and theory meant and this was the opportunity to draw the line at what were and were not acceptable practices for French citizens.
Question: Was this framed as an issue of secular democracy?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Not democracy, secularism, that was laicite, the French secularism was the issue and the argument was that since schools were state run schools, since there was a sharp separation between church and state in France since at least 1905 that schools could not tolerate signs of religious affiliation.  In France when you pass a law or issue a decree you cannot identify a particular group.  French republicanism is Universalist, so the law has to apply to everybody.  When they did a law in gay domestic partnerships in the 1988 or I think 1989 it couldn’t apply just to gay couples.  It had to apply to two people cohabiting together of whatever sex, so as many heterosexual couples as homosexual couples ended up getting these domestic partnership arrangements, so any law that passes has to be applied across the board and although these at first rules and then in 2003 and 2004 the law was passed in 2004, the banning of headscarves in public schools actually happened, had to apply to all signs of religious affiliation.  For years boys with yarmulkes, Sikhs with turbans, there are very few Sikhs with turbans, but had been allowed in the schools and basically the teachers just turned a blind eye.  Historically in the 1880s when French universal compulsory education passes as a way of inducting children into the republic and weaning them from the influences of the priests kids were allowed to wear anything, crosses and the point was that the school represented the place in which republicanism happened to kids or secular ideas were possible.  What happened from 1989 on in these series of controversies and then in the law was that you had to come to school basically already committed to secularism, so the role of the school as the place which inducted you into republican principles was being transformed and now you had to have those principles before you were going to be allowed to come to school and that was a real transformation of what the expectation of the role of the school was in the education of children.

Is this battle growing more heated, or less?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Right now we have the discussion of the burqa.  A couple of month ago or at the end of last year President Sarkozy decided again clearly for political reasons and clearly because of the fear that the right was capturing more votes than he wanted them to, he… and also I think in response to Obama’s Cairo speech.  Remember Obama in his Cairo speech talked about the fact that people ought to be able to wear anything they want in public and when they go to school and that was taken by the French to be a direct criticism of the French 2004 law.  In response to all of that they started looking around and discovered…When the conversation started there were supposed to be 300 women in burqas.  Now it’s said to be about 1,000.  It’s a very tiny minoritarian phenomenon, 1,000 in a population of Muslims of about 6 million, so we’re not talking about a threat I don’t think, but he decided that he would appoint or ask for a parliamentary…  He actually…  Sarkozy didn’t start it.  It was a communist deputy in the National Assembly who called for a commission to look into the advisability of women being allowed to wear burqas anywhere in public in France.  The commission recommended that…  Well it didn’t recommend anything exactly, but said that it was a complicated issue, thought that it would probably be a good idea to get rid of them, but didn’t come down as hard as the 2003 commission did recommending a law banning headscarves in public schools because the notion of interfering with women in public would go against things like the notion of liberty of conscience, which is a European Union policy recommendation or requirement. So it was tricky, but Sarkozy just in the last couple of weeks has said that he wants to ban the burqa in France, which would mean these women would have to stay at home all the time because they have to wear this gear in… only when they’re in public.  It would mean they couldn’t walk in the streets.  They couldn’t go shopping in stores.  They couldn’t do anything that would involve leaving the house. 

The argument there is interesting, less about laicite because they can’t really argue that…  I mean they can argue I guess that streets are secular, but they really can’t argue that, that being that sort of public, use of public space, maybe official government buildings, schools, that kind of thing you can have rules about who can come in and how they’re dressed, but just the streets is hard, so now what they’re saying that this has to do with equality of women, that the burqa is a sign of women’s oppression, that it is… it goes against what they’re saying is a primordial and fundamental principle of the French Republic, equality between women and men.  What I find hypocritical is probably the word is that these are often the very same guys who, not only Sarkozy, but these politicians who are eager for this to happen who when it comes to talking about the equality of women, women’s access to politics in France did everything they could to stop the passage of a law in 2000, which was passed and which requires equal access, equal representation on most ballots for most elections of women and men, but these guys have found dozens of ways to undermine the application of that law, so it’s been very interesting to see how the equality of women is an issue when we’re talking about Muslims and thought to be nothing of a problem at all when it comes to be talking about France.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen