Big Think Interview With Joan Wallach Scott

A conversation with the historian and social scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study.
  • Transcript


Joan Wallach Scott: I’m Joan Scott. I’m the Harold Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study.

How did the “headscarf controversies” originate in France?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Yeah, 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.

Question: How do you feel about the headscarf ban in French public schools?

Joan Wallach Scott:  I actually… I certainly first have to say that I consider myself to be secular.  I certainly don’t think burqas are something that I’m comfortable with.  When I see women in them with their faces almost entirely covered it’s a sort of hard…  In a culture which is an open culture in which faces are uncovered it’s very hard to deal with.  On the other hand it seems to me that you can’t separate the French desire to ban this from a kind of underlying racism about Arabs and Muslims, former colonials from North Africa and West Africa and there is just no way to separate them and so on the grounds of the fact that this constitutes a form of discrimination and a failure to actually consult with the people who are wearing them and to find out what indeed is involved in the choice on the part of some women, the influence of others on them to wear these things it seems to me really inadvisable as a law and will only be taken by minority populations as yet another strike against them and if anything, it will increase the numbers of people who are wearing these rather than do away with them, so as a policy issue in countries in which Muslims are a minority population in general and in France in particular I think it is a really bad idea to ban these things. 

I think that certainly wearing a headscarf is a different thing from wearing a burqa actually, but in either case there is at least in part the notion that you have to cover women to prevent the sort of sexual temptation of men that they represent, but there are other… It seems to me Muslims are not alone in this.  Orthodox Jews, women have to cover their heads and wear long sleeves, and you know there’s all kinds of dress requirements for Orthodox Jewish women that also indicate their inferiority, but I think no one would dare talk about, post-Holocaust no one would dare talk about or would have a very difficult time trying to ban certain of the behaviors of Orthodox Jews.  It would be considered an illegitimate interference in religious practice.  Catholics, Catholic nuns certainly still have to cover their heads.  I mean there’s all sorts of religious practices in which the inequality of women and men are manifest in behavior and clothing and the rest of it.  It seems to me a terrible mistake to single out Muslims at a time of clash with civilizations in countries in which there is a tremendous amount of class and other kinds of economic and political discrimination against them.  It doesn’t seem to me to be wise policy at all.

How should European states deal with the perceived problem of Muslim assimilation?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Well I think first of all you have to think about the history of other groups’ assimilations as well.  Usually they’re slow.  Practices are adapted pragmatically.  You have to begin by defining the population as assimilable and it’s unclear to me that Muslim, Arab, North, West Africans are considered ultimately assimilable.  I mean I think I have something in my book in The Politics of the Veil, there is a moment when a friend of mine who was opposed to the headscarf ban was talking to a quite famous Jewish politician and said to her, “You know this is terrible.”  And this woman said to my friend, “Well, you know, these people are un-assimilable.”  And my friend said, “That is what they used to say about the Jews.”  And this woman was just outraged and horrified, but historically it is true.  Jews were…  Anti-Semitism was a tremendous problem even for the most assimilated of French Jews.  I mean the Dreyfus case in the 1890s being an example of that. 

So and actually I just read a book by an anthropologist, a guy name John Bowen who works on, use to work on Indonesia and now works on Muslims in France and he spent a lot of time in a lot of these little mosques all around and just hung out with people in cafes and restaurants in the mosque and what he describes in this book is a process of assimilation that for any of us whose parents or grandparents in my case were… came to America in this case, but were immigrants one can watch over generations this process going on and what he describes is the sort of pragmatic adaptations that have to be made, so for example, if by law in France you have to get married in the city hall before you can have a religious wedding, it’s true with Catholics, true of everybody, and a number of the constituents in one of these mosques says, “Well they don’t know if they even want to get married.”  “They’ll just go have a mosque wedding and that will be a more Hallel way of doing the wedding or they’ll get married their first and then they’ll go comply with.”  And the imam says, “Well you know you could do that if you want to, but since there are no sharia courts in France if anyone wants to get a divorce… and he says this to the women particularly, if you want to get a divorce you will have no recourse to a sharia court.”  “There will be no one to judge your situation.”  “If you don’t have a civil marriage you won’t be able to get a divorce and so you’re going to be stuck in a very difficult sort of situation.”  “Of course I’m not predicting that this will happen to you, but…”  And so they do.  They get married in the civil courts.  Should they come to the imam and they say they want to buy a house, but there are no Islamic banks in France, can they borrow money from a bank at interest.  Well he says, “You know it is probably more important for you to have a stable place for your family to live than to deal with this interest thing, so we can reinterpret what you’re paying as a different kind of interest, dah, dah, dah, or as one thing taking priority over the other.”  And so they go and borrow money and so it goes these stories of adaptation.  You’re not allowed to slaughter goats in your bathtub in the housing projects in which people live, so they find interpretations in the Koran, which say you can give money to charity instead of sacrificing an animal at the end of Ramadan, and so what is astonishing about the book is the slow and pragmatic way that people are adapting to rules of sort of both social and political life in France.  They are assimilating.

And what he says at the end of the book is that the French government is far less accommodating on the other side, isn’t as attuned to this process of assimilation as it has been in past times when Portuguese or Italians or you know other groups, Jews have come and found their ways slowly over several generations of assimilating.  You know most…  You’re not even talking in the Muslim populations of the majority being practicing, being sort of orthodox in their practices, so I think the process is happening and it should be allowed to happen.  I would draw the line.  I mean when groups come into schools and say they don’t want… just as I would be here, they don’t want evolution taught in the science curriculum or they want a different kind of history taught.  I mean it seems to me there are lines that one can draw about what is the sort of the way we do things here and what are the openings to the needs and interests of the constituent groups. 

I mean in schools I would certainly say they have to teach the history of colonialism and of empire in a different way from the way it has been taught and that is not a matter of a concession to religion.  It’s a matter of being more inclusive in the kind of history that is taught and that is written.  So it depends, but I mean I think there are certainly lines that one can draw which don’t involve capitulation to theocracy, which is what is always held out.  You know if we let them wear headscarves or burqas we’ll become Iran tomorrow and I don’t think there is any danger that France will become Iran.  Turkey might be a different story, where you’re talking about a 90% Muslim population.  It’s a different set of problems and issues there, but in countries in which these groups are minorities I think you know then I become a kind of champion of American multiculturalism.  It seems to me we’ve done it right in a way that is in allowing a certain kind of tolerance or I wouldn’t even call it tolerance, recognition of the differences that people bring with them even as, at least as long as people are not having to read Texas textbooks in the next years and but as long as there is a kind of an educational system that into which they or through which they become participants in the democratic processes of the country.

Question: Is the headscarf ban partly a reaction to perceived Muslim threats to free speech?

Joan Wallach Scott: The groups who protest the Danish cartoons… who protested the Danish cartoons, the threats…  I think those are sort of terrible things, but I don’t think the vast majority of the populations we’re talking about and those who are affected by things like headscarf laws are involved in that.  If they are they’re pulled in by the sense of discrimination and objection they feel in the host countries in which they live, but more than that I don’t see how banning headscarves makes any difference in the reaction of politicized Islamic groups to something like the Danish cartoons.  It seems to me that the cure being offered doesn’t fit the problem that is being defined and the cure is a kind of general Islam phobia that attaches to all Muslims and that affects the practices of all Muslims, so I think girls and headscarves are benign.  I really don’t think that that is the flag of Islamic terrorism or the cover for deeply felt terrorist inclinations.  I do think for…  There are issues of religious belief.  There are issues of identification with a world movement that removes you from the kind of more objected ethnic racial inferiority you feel in the country that you are, so that you can identify with something that is bigger than you and that feels more comfortable or gives you a kind of recognition that you otherwise feel you’re not getting, so you know there are lots of issues involved in the choice to wear a headscarf, but I don’t think wearing a headscarf or having people not wear headscarves or not wear burqas has anything to do with addressing the problem of political action, political censorship of things like the Danish cartoons.

Question: Should our guiding principle in such clashes be “free expression above all”?

Joan Wallach Scott: I mean I guess I’m you know I’m certainly for free expression.  I think that… and I was the head of the Committee on Academic Freedom in tenor at the American Association of University Professors, so that was the hat I wore for a long time and I certainly think free expression is what there should be.  There are always tricky contexts and the one in which the Danish cartoon somehow seemed to be a blow, a horrible blow at religious belief and religious…  You know if the Danish cartoons had been swastikas, what would the response have been on the part of Jewish community?  I mean maybe people wouldn’t have threatened the lives of the cartoonists, but I think there would have been an outpouring of objection on the part of members of the Jewish community about this travesty that was allowed to be expressed even as freedom of speech is something that is recognized and, you know, the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s or 80s, I mean civil libertarians here said that march had to be allowed to take place, but so I think one can under…  There was a certain kind of insensitivity that was involved in the publication of the cartoons in a context in which this was a really volatile and explosive issue, but I think they should have been allowed to be published.  I do think though that the…  As I say I don’t think if they had been…  I don’t think the editors of the paper would have allowed the publication of similar cartoons in which anti-Semitism could be the accusation rather than attacks on Muslims.

Should the satirical “South Park” episode about Islam have been censored?

Joan Wallach Scott:  No, I think that that…  I think that was fine.  I mean I think that…  And I think people are looking to sort of…  There was certainly threats and all of the rest of it, but I you know no, I don’t…  I think that can be allowed.  Again, I guess my test always is if we’re as tolerant of what could be taken to be…  post-Holocaust, what are taken to be anti-Semitic gestures as anti-Muslim ones then you know I think yeah, why not allow these characters to sort of play around and be satirical.

What lessons does France’s headscarf controversy hold for the U.S.?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Well I mean I guess that hard-line secularism is not a good idea, which is not to say that secularism is not a good idea.  I mean I certainly think that the attempt in the United States to by groups here to rewrite American history as a sort of Christian story and to portray the founding fathers as Christian fathers is something that really needs to be challenged and in the name of secular… in the name of history, of accurate history as well as everything else, but I think the kind of hard-nose secularism of France, that kind of unbending insistence on that secular means one thing and that violations of it will not be tolerated in any way is a bad idea and that if you’re accommodating different groups, different populations what you need to do is figure out ways of accommodating them.  The way the French did when the passed the 1905 law separating church and state, the way they did with the Catholic Church.  There was a day off for religious instruction for kids.  All the holidays in France still, some are state holidays, but most of them are Catholic, not even just Christian, Catholic holidays.  Parts of France are… Alsace and Lorraine, Alsace-Moselle, those departments which were under German control when the 1905 law was passed and then came back to France after the war those areas were never forced to adopt the secular practices that the rest of the country adopted, so still in those areas you can have religious teaching in the schools.  Children have to take a course in religious instruction and so on and so forth, so they’re not even consistent…  It’s not even a nationally consistent policy in relation to Catholicism, which was the dominate religion at the time the law was passed, so to act as if it is either secularism or nothing or that the secular and the religious are in eternal opposition to each other is to misrepresent French history and to create a situation in which there will only be a greater sense of felt discrimination and anger on the part of the populations whom these laws affect.  So it seems to me that that kind of hard line secularism, which is as fundamentalist in its way as the most extreme Islamist fundamentalism defeats its own purpose and really doesn’t end up producing a situation in which there can be a certain kind of pluralism, cultural pluralism and political assimilation and political citizenship.

Question: What is the parité movement and how has it affected France?

Joan Wallach Scott:  YMost of my work is in nineteenth century French history and both the Veil book and Parité are on twentieth and twenty-first century, and I had done work on feminist demands for voting rights.  Women get the vote in France in 1944.  I had done all kinds of work on that and then I began to read about this movement for… le mouvement pour la parité, and that was devised by a group of French feminists who… many of whom were involved in politics and who felt that they were just hitting a brick wall or a glass ceiling or whatever, that they was just so much toleration by the vast majority of men who were in politics for women coming in and one of the things they pointed out was that since women had gotten the vote in 1944 until they started their movement in 1990 no more than 5 and at most 6% of the French Parliament were women and this they seemed to them… this put France on a par with some of the most un-advanced countries of Europe and indeed, of the world and this was brought up over and over again as a way of thinking about what to do. 

At first they proposed quotas and quotas were struck down by the French constitutional court as unconstitutional and then they proposed what they called parité and this was where the thing we talked about before about French universalism was this sort of wonderful turn on French universalism.  French universalism, the unit of universalism is the abstract individual who has no characteristics, no social characteristics, no religion, no race, no ethnicity, nothing except historically sex.  The reason women weren’t given the vote initially when men got the vote, which was in…  First they had the vote in the French revolution for a while, but in 1848 you have universal manhood suffrage.  Women didn’t get the vote because they were thought to be domestic, dependent, the sex.  They were outside of the political realm and so the people who supported parité argued that sex was the one thing that couldn’t be abstracted for the purposes of the abstract individual and if that was the case then why not say that the abstract individual came in two sexes, male and female, but that all that that sexual difference meant was anatomy.  It was anatomical difference.  It had nothing to do with social, cultural, political behavior, capabilities, capacities.  Those were all culturally attributed.  And so they began to campaign for 50% representation for women and what they argued was that there should be a law that said that 50% of the parliament had to be all… 50% of all the seats in the National Assembly had to be for women and so on in all political offices, which didn’t fly terribly well, although that was the original plan. 

So this movement developed and they were ingenious in the kinds of political things they did, the demonstrations they would have, the signs they would… the posters they would hold up, all sorts of puns in French on the National Assembly being you know all male and I can’t really reproduce them in this, but in any case they moved along and as different governments came into…  They created coalitions also across party lines.  This was one of the really ingenious things, with women who were leaders in very different political parties.  They also created a kind of grassroots movement by bringing together the heads of all the sort of voluntary associations, the Association of Graduates, women graduates of technical schools, women lawyers, you know the kind of professional associations and farmer’s wives and whatever, grassroots associations.  The leadership of that came together and supported, signed the petition also in favor of parité and they created this sort of ground swell of public opinion such that at one point something like, I don’t remember the numbers now, but something like 70 or more than 70% of the population surveyed both male and female thought that there should be greater equality in politics and they could imagine a woman president of France.  This was long before Ségolène Royal and you know her attempt to become president. 

So then the socialists came into power I think in 1997 and there seemed a real possibility for getting this law passed because Jacques **** was inclined to do more egalitarian sorts of things and this seemed like a good thing to do and then the original movement, which was saying on the one hand there have to be… we have to take sex into account in political representation, but on the other hand saying that sex was irrelevant for the capabilities and the characteristics and the ideologies and the outlooks of women and men that there weren’t… that the differences were not deeply rooted or biological.  Then in 1990, well, in the 90s, but in 1998, ’99 it came to a head.  This coincided with the push for domestic partnership legislation in France and the domestic partnership legislation unleashed a campaign that could only be called homophobic, although some of its representatives denied that they were homophobic, of the most extraordinary sort in which everybody was okay with the idea that there could be a contract, a domestic partnership contract, but not with the idea that gay couples could have families, that gay couples could adopt or could have access to reproductive technologies of all kinds, in vitro fertilization and stuff like that and the law that passed did not permit adoption or the recognition of a homoparental family. 

The debate that unfolded around that was one which reintroduced the notion of sexual difference as a fundamental distinction that had to be maintained.  Maybe it wasn’t biological, but it was cultural.  People said things like children have a right to know that they are born of a man and a woman.  This in the age of reproductive technology when, you know, some children are produced in petri dishes and you know, whatever.  That children would become psychotic if they were raised by same sex parents and so on and so on, and there was a book published actually at the time called, La Politique du Sexe, The Politics of Sex, by the wife of ****, ****, a philosopher of sorts, and she argued in favor of parité and against homosexual parenting by saying that couples that… the sort of normal couple had to be a man and a women because there was complementarity that had to be… come into play and similarly she said in politics that complementarity has to be there, so no single sex legislatures, no single sex families and that became the kind of dominant discourse of the moment and when the law passed the law on parité, people kept saying I agree or many of the legislators who voted for it finally said yes, I agree with **** that there has to be complementarity, that women represent a different sensibility, a different set of concerns, a different set of interests and we need to have those in the parliament as well, so on the one hand the law passed, but the underlying premises of it had changed in the course of the history of the movement for parité from one in which the goal was to eliminate the notion that there were fundamental differences between men and women to one in which the fundamental differences were what indeed had to be represented.

Do you think democratic government would function better under a parité system?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Well I think you know what parité now is it’s a requirement that all the ballots… rather than that the legislature has to be half and half that the ballots, that on most ballots and not all ballots women have to be half the candidates.  I’m not sure that would work here.  I think it would be dismissed as another form of quota, as a secret form of quota creeping in, but I do think that the best sorts of situations are one in which sexual difference doesn’t matter anymore and those happen the more women, because they are the ones who are usually excluded, the more women you have in the group just as the more African-Americans you have in a group, the more of others become part of what you get used to you stop thinking about the differences of sex of the differences of race.  You just deal with them as people and you disagree with their ideas.  You say no, I don’t like that idea rather than reacting to them as women or men or black or white or whatever.  I mean I think those are in my experience of having at the beginning of my career being the one woman in the Department of History at the university I first taught at to being part of a group.  When I was at Brown University under a court order Brown increased, dramatically increased the numbers of women who are on its faculty.  After a while you know nobody can say well all women are like her or she is the embodiment of what I hate about women because the variety is large enough so that it becomes a kind of irrelevant consideration or if not irrelevant because it is never completely irrelevant, a minor consideration in the institutional dealings, in the practical matters, in the kinds of politics and sorts of decisions that you have to make, so I think the more mixing you have the more democratic and in fact, the more egalitarian things become.  Again, it is never perfect.  I mean there are always going to be deep psychological issues about who is male, who is female, men, women, this, that, but those become less and less significant in situations in which you have a fairly large representation of the varieties of groups that are possible.

Recorded April 26th, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen