On March 15, 2004, a French law was passed banning students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in primary and secondary public schools. The law is widely referred to as the "French headscarf ban." Last week, Professor Joan W. Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study, author of the forthcoming Politics of the Veil (Princeton University Press, October 2007), spoke to a capacity crowd at the Humanities Center's Levinthal Hall to explore the complex and underlying motives for the ban. The talk was a Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts.
"The French idea of 'one and indivisible' is different from E Pluribus Unum. There's a lack of any recognition for social difference," Scott said. Yet despite the claims of égalité, the French have "a deep uneasiness about sharing power." Scott outlined the emerging "cracks in French universalism."
The French portray their concept of universalism as "dating back to the French Revolution in a seamless story," she said. However, in the 19th century, class became the "great exception" to equality. After women received the vote in 1945, their inequality "had to be explained away." In the 1990s, gay rights and domestic partnership issues flagged more "exceptions." Now France continues to face the challenges of racism, immigration and religious intolerance.
The headscarf brought several of these issues to a head in a nation where "assimilation is seen as the passport to Frenchness."
One issue is the specter of Muslim inassimilability. Scott recalled that, during the 2005 riots in the Parisian housing projects, then-Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy blamed the troubles on "illegals." However, in the investigations, "they couldn't find many—they were French citizens," some of them second- and third-generation French.
She also pointed out that, in France, the word immigrant "doesn't refer to Portuguese, Spanish, Italians—Europeans or Eastern Europeans"; it only refers to former colonials, further pinpointing the Muslim population as different and problematic....
"Surely there is a better way of dealing with terrorism besides banning the headscarf," she added....
When [a] student asserted the ban was part of a general attempt to keep public schools secular, Scott said that no laws had been passed affecting yarmulkes, or Sikh turbans, until the headscarves became a concern. "This is a symbolic stand against Islam." [Link]
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