The Veil as Social Screen

From Hootan Shambayati, reviewing The Politics of the Veil  by Joan Wallach Scott:

In this book, one of the foremost students of France asks why has the head covering worn by millions of Muslim women across the world attracted so much controversy in recent French politics. Even in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, where the veil is worn by large segments of the population, it has become a potent political issue with different societies and political regimes adopting very different approaches in dealing with it. The constitutional court in secular Turkey recently rejected a constitutional amendment because it could have potentially eased the ban on female university students wearing a headscarf, while neighboring Iran legally requires all women to cover their hair in public. Although, this book deals only with the French case, it has implications beyond the borders of that country.

As Joan Wallach Scott recognizes, there are many different styles of veil, from the full body covering and face masks to the more relaxed version that only covers the hair and the neck. In addition, each has a different meaning for both those who wear them and those who are concerned about them. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity and to reflect how the term was used during the actual debates in France, she uses the generic term veil to refer to all forms of headscarves worn by Muslim women (p.16). Scott is also quick to warn the readers that “this is not a book about French Muslims; it is about the dominant French view of them.” She is “interested in the way in which the veil became a screen onto which were projected images of strangeness and danger – danger to the fabric of French society and to the future of the republican nation” (p.10). She pursues her quest by examining the circumstances that led to the adoption of a 2004 law that banned the display of “conspicuous” religious symbols in French public schools. As is well known, although legally the ban applied equally to all religions, its true targets were a small number of female Muslim students who insisted on wearing the veil to school. The question then is why did the veil become such a controversial political issue in French politics.

Read the rest here

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