Exposing racism

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.”

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