On Joan Scott’s The Politics of the Veil

The December 10 issue of The Nation magazine is its annual Fall Books issue, so it’s a particular delight for those of us who like to read books, and read about them, too. There are pieces on Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, among many others.

The magazine also includes an essay of mine about the headscarf controversies in France. It’s called “Beyond the Veil.” Here is its opening paragraph:

“A kind of aggression.” “A successor to the Berlin Wall.” “A lever in the long power struggle between democratic values and fundamentalism.” “An insult to education.” “A terrorist operation.” These descriptions–by former French President Jacques Chirac; economist Jacques Attali; and philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann–do not refer to the next great menace to human civilization but rather to the Muslim woman’s headscarf, which covers the hair and neck, or, as it is known in France, the foulard islamique.

In her keenly observed book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott examines the particular French obsession with the foulard, which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. The law further specified that the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crosses were not to be worn but that “medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, and small Korans” were permitted. Despite the multireligious contortions, it was very clear, of course, that the law was primarily aimed at Muslim schoolgirls.

The rest of the article is freely available online, here.