Should France Ban Headscarves in Schools?

France’s ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools has ignited endless controversy. Which side does the “Politics of the Veil” author take?
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen