Review of London lecture on French hijab politics

This evening the American feminist academic Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social science at Princeton, NJ, gave a lecture to promote her book, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton, 2007) (reviewed in the New Statesman here). The lecture was held at the London School of Economics (LSE), presently part of the University of London, and was well-attended, with both men and women, including quite a few Muslims (although fewer than I expected), in the packed 240-seat lecture theatre. The lecture, and the book, offers an intriguing insight into the “debate” which led to the imposition of the ban.

Scott displayed a number of still pictures of various images associated with French republicanism, among them a painting of a bare-breasted woman with a traditional head-dress carrying a French flag. This was accompanied by a real-life picture of a bare-breasted woman with the same style of head-dress and a French flag; also shown was a front page from Le Figaro magazine featuring a bare-breasted statue with its head and face covered by a Muslim-style headwrap, not a modern Muslim woman’s headwrap but a colonial stereotype of an Algerian one, with the caption “will we still be French in 30 years’ time?”. She explained that, in the debate on banning the hijab, the hijab as worn by most French women who wear it was conflated with the burqa, with the latter commonly used as the stereotype of a “veiled” woman despite the fact that it did not represent the majority of hijab-wearers, who did not cover their face.

Ms Scott’s lecture mainly concentrated on the gender aspect of the debate, in which two competing gender systems were posited. One was an “open” western one and the other a “covered” Islamic one. One aspect of her critique was that the use of the words “conspicuous” and “discreet” to designate which religious items would be acceptable or not attached some sort of sexual symbolism to the garment; to quote from her book, “there was something sexually amiss about girls in headscarves; it was as if both too little and too much were being revealed”. In Arabic (and not just Moroccan Arabic, as she claims), the word for conspicuous display, tabarruj, is used for the exact opposite of hijab.

She offered a number of the French justifications for the ban, which she took the trouble to explain as not being extreme examples, so perverse as they seem. The psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco, for example, justified banning hijabs but not beards in schools because “the veil interfered with what she took to be a natural psychological process: the visual appreciation of women’s bodies by men brought women’s femininity into being”. Thus:

In this view, girls were lost to their feminine identity if their bodies could not be seen. Identity was conferred by men’s being able to see them as sexual objects. Feminine identity depended on male desire; male desire depended on visual stimulation. Stasi [who chaired the commission which recommended the ban, among other proposals which were mostly rejected] talked of the veil as “objectively” alienating women, not only from the exercise of their fundamental rights, but also from their own sexuality, and Iranian feminist Chahdortt Djavann, one of many refugees from an Islamist theocracy, called the veil a form of “psychological, sexual and social mutilation”. It denied a young girl any possibility of “becoming a human being”. Mutilation was a big preoccupation for many commentators. Philosopher André Glucksmann described the veil as “stained with blood” (a reference to terrorists and Nazis, but also with inevitable connotations of cutting). The logic of Glucksmann’s observation seemed to go like this: terrorism constitutes the breaking of all the rules of political deportment; veiling violates the rules of gendered interaction; the rules of gendered interaction are the basis of social and political order; therefore, veiling is terrorism. (Scott, p158)

This logic made it difficult to justify the view that veiled women were victims; rather, it portrayed them as aggressors, something Jacques Chirac said explicitly in a speech in Tunisia in December 2003: “wearing the veil, whether it is intended or not, is a kind of aggression” (ibid). Scott sees in this statement the suggestion that veiling is an aggression against men, denying them their prerogative to see women and desire them, and to receive looks in response. “The exchange of desirous looks, the availability of faces for reading, is a crucial aspect of gender dynamics in ‘open’ systems.” (Ibid, p159.) Bernard-Henri Lévy, in an interview with the American radio network National Public Radio, made the same conflation of hijab with niqab (face-covering) with a remark on “how said it was to cover the beautiful faces of young girls”.

A few points were missed here. The first is that female genital mutilation does not go on in many of the regions from which the Muslims of France come - in particular, North Africa. It is mainly an issue in the regions immediately south of the Sahara, and in the Horn of Africa, the Sudan and Egypt, but it certainly has nothing to do with the practice of newly-religious Muslim youth and Islamists, who generally condemn it. While she correctly identified it among the manifestations of the “hysteria” over hijab which erupted in 2003, she failed to point out its total irrelevance to the issue of hijab, or take issue with the defamation it perpetrates on those it affects.

Second, regarding Chirac’s speech in Tunisia, the nature of the Tunisian régime was not made clear: it is an anti-Islamic dictatorship (despite its fake elections) which represses Islamic activity and has been known to persecute and harass women who wear the hijab. There have been public crackdowns on hijab in which women have been forced to remove them in the streets; there have also been allegations that women have been sexually assaulted by thugs in the pay of the state. The excuse is that the garment is a modern invention and a foreign import; what is tolerated is the safsari (pictured here), a traditional wrap-around garment which is more restrictive than the hijab and whatever was worn alongside it. (However, the ban was rescinded in 2007.) While there are secularised women in most Muslim countries, Chirac was talking to a despotic western client who was able to “westernise” a Muslim country using means unavailable to a modern, western head of state.

Even some French opponents of the ban used perversions of feminism to justify their standpoints. One Janine Mossuz-Lavau wrote that she felt “a pang of emotion” when walking past a veiled woman, because her dress designated her “a source of sin” and “a potential whore” who was to be prohibited from extra-marital sex. The key to liberating her from these conditions was exposure to school, because she had found, in a survey she conducted in 2000 and 2001, that “the only ones who had transgressed [Islamic] norms and who had sexual relations before marriage were students and managers with advanced degrees”. The aforementioned Chahdortt Djavann offered lurid tales of women and children preyed on by sex-starved men in Iran after the revolution.

Scott admirably points out that the French anti-veil hysteria left no room for considering whatever ill-effects French culture has on women. The secular Republic is offered as the guarantor of equality, and yet women did not gain the vote in France until 1945, and when Ségolène Royal entered the contest to become President, Socialist party colleagues sniped that it was “not a beauty contest”. In answers to questions after the end of the lecture, she noted that one French feminist publication purged its editorial team of people who did not support the anti-hijab law, and feminists who had criticised patriarchal aspects of French society for years became its ardent defenders.

I was the first to be given the microphone to ask a question, and I made the point that the so-called feminists who demanded that women uncover their heads if they want an education chiefly hurt women with aspirations; those who really want to become housewives have little to lose from simply quitting school. She responded that an accommodation of sorts had been made, namely that girls wore the scarf as far as the school gates and then removed it, replacing it when leaving school in the afternoon. Some girls had been removed from school and sent to private schools, but many French Muslims are poor and welfare-dependent, and the welfare payments are contingent on the attendance at school of anyone of school age. A Muslim, female questioner asked if there had been suppression of debate, and Scott answered in the affirmative, mentioning a transcript she had seen of a TV discussion between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim “feminist”, in which the former had been continually shouted down.

In response to another question, she replied that the law had increased the sense of discrimination, partly because a number of other institutions had applied the law to themselves also, resulting in women turning up at the town hall to get married only to be refused entry on hijab grounds. (After the event was declared over, I was approached at my seat by two French Muslim women who told me that they had themselves lost their jobs in France because their employers required them to remove their hijabs; at least one of them was working in a private company; in a widely-reported case in Belgium a few years ago, a woman stopped wearing her hijab to work because racist thugs threatened to burn the workplace down.) Another female questioner gave a lengthy monologue about homosexuality, alleging that in Muslim countries, men have sex with each other because women are unavailable. The last questioner was a white man who insisted that school was supposed to be protected from the “poison” of religion. Scott answered this by saying that she was a secularist herself and opposed the introduction of creationism in American schools, for example, but would object less to French secularist policy if it were free of hypocrisy. For example, French schools are closed on four Catholic holidays, but proposals to replace two of them with Jewish and Muslim feast days were rejected as communalist. Furthermore, in the three Alsace-Lorraine departments, the 1905 separation law does not apply, and pupils are required to take religious education classes from religious teachers, or alternatively moral philosophy classes. Secularism is, thus, not implemented consistently.

I must admit that I came to this lecture with a number of pre-conceived opinions about this subject. I had always perceived the ban as motivated largely by malice and racism, but the truth is often stranger than theory. What sort of liberation is it to be open to sexual attention all the time? The purpose of hijab, of course, is to allow a woman to pass in a man’s world without these feelings, which are perfectly natural and legitimate in their place, getting in the way of daily activities like work and study, and during the teenage years these feelings can be particularly strong. Many British schools are single-sex, hiding girls from boys with bricks and mortar rather than flimsy cloth, and many of these schools are among the country’s best academic performers. There have always been, of course, women who see feminism as a white women’s movement, and I am sure they will not be surprised by this perverse thinking. It is not only in France that it has been characterised by a contempt for the needs and ways of non-white women, or where this contempt has been indulged rather than dismissed as racist drivel.

It might also do to explore whether there are other psychological aspects to the French attitude to hijab than those mentioned by Elisabeth Roudinesco. Do French women feel threatened by the femininity of women in hijab, or the fact that they decide not to make themselves open to male attention every waking moment? Early British anti-black racism, for example, was accompanied by the cry of “they’re taking our women”, as new Carribean immigrants proved popular with the local (white) ladies in some places, perhaps more so than their impoverished, war-weary menfolk. One commenter here (a non-Muslim) has remarked that the veil, in its more moderate forms, is “beautifully feminine”, and I agree (as a man). French-style femininity seems to require a neurotic attitude to food also, and you do not need to be slim to look lovely in a flowery headscarf.

On the strength of this lecture, I would recommend the book (although I have yet to read it all the way through) to anyone wanting to learn about the controversy, particularly those who do not speak French and cannot bring themselves to wade through the idiotic, perverted justifications issued by supporters of the French law. It should also be useful to those in Canada who are fighting the designs of Islamophobes in Québec who are influenced by French bigots.

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