A focus on women's rights is being used to justify intervention in religious and public life that would otherwise be unacceptable
Joan Wallach Scott
If there were any doubt about the motivation for the ban on Islamic face coverings passed by the French national assembly in July, the Sarkozy government's actions in August have laid them to rest.
The issue isn't women's emancipation, for all the pious rhetoric we've heard about equality being a "primordial value" of the French nation. It isn't the danger that terrorists and robbers will hide behind burqas in order to blow up buildings or rob banks - the exemptions in the law for motorcycle helmets, fencing and ski masks, and carnival costumes quickly dispel that argument. And it isn't about enforcing openness and transparency as an aspect of French culture.
Outlawing what the French call "le voile intégral" is part of a campaign to purify and protect national identity, purging so-called foreign elements - although many of these "foreigners" are actually French citizens - from membership in the nation. It is part of a cynical bid by Sarkozy and his party to capture the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus that has brought electoral gains to the rightwing National Front party and to disarm the Socialist opposition, which has so far offered little resistance to the xenophobic campaign.
The national assembly's action came on July 13, as the country prepared to celebrate the birth of republican democracy in the revolution of 1789. Banning the burqa on the eve of the Fête Nationale provided a clear affirmation of true Frenchness.
It followed a year in which President Sarkozy included a minister of immigration and national identity in his cabinet. The title of the new post conveyed the message that if national identity were in trouble immigrants were the source. The president and his minister called for a countrywide conversation on the meanings of national identity. There were to be contests and town-hall meetings to articulate what it meant to be truly French. When that effort fizzled, they came up with more draconian measures. Sarkozy proposed, this month, to take away the citizenship of foreign-born French citizens if they were convicted of crimes such as threatening the life of a police officer. Children born in France to foreign parents (once presumed to automatically qualify for citizenship) would be denied citizenship if there were any evidence of juvenile delinquency.
This month, too, began the expulsion of the Roma, said to be illegally camped throughout the country and responsible for all manner of crimes. Despite an outcry from those who denounced the expulsions as echoes of Vichy (the government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s), these activities have made "security" a prime focus for politicians and public opinion pollsters. Whether it will deliver another term to Sarkozy in 2012 remains to be seen.
The immediate effect is to conjure a fantasy spectre in which foreigners endanger France and are made to take the blame for all its economic, social and political problems. Instead of real solutions to economic stagnation, high unemployment, discrimination against minorities, violence in the banlieue, and a deteriorating educational system, to name a few, the country is offered a nightmare vision of veiled women and their male handlers, an enemy within the borders who must be uncovered and, in this way, disarmed.
That only a few thousand women wear face coverings in a country that has 4-6 million people from Muslim countries in its population raises the question of why this issue has become the focus of nationalist campaigns, not only in France, but in other western European countries as well. What is it about covered women that so draws the ire and fear of so many, some western feminists included? How have politicians, many of whom have worked hard to keep women out of political office, been able to use feminist themes of emancipation and equality in the politics of the "clash of civilisations"? Why has it been so easy to identify the veil as an instrument only of oppression, even when ethnographers and historians tell us it has multiple meanings, and when some women who wear it insist that they have chosen it because it positively signifies their femininity and their devotion to God?
One answer - and there are many more to be explored - is that the focus on Muslim women's rights covers over some of the dangerous elements of the "security state". The claim to be protecting women justifies state intervention in religious, family, and public life that would otherwise be unacceptable.
The same politicians who have long resisted laws on sexual harassment and the punishment of domestic violence become advocates for women when these are identified as Muslim offences. This puts aside the continuing issue of gender inequality as a national problem. And politicians demonstrate their prowess to their national constituencies by acting to protect these supposedly vulnerable women from the men who are said to violate their rights: the proposed law levies a small fine of €150 on a woman wearing a burqa in public, while the men presumed to have forced her compliance get a year in prison and a fine of €30,000.
The state's role is figured as the protection of its citizens (the analogy is to gallant men protecting the weaker sex), even if that requires the suspension of liberties in the name of security - now the country's highest priority.
Joan Wallach Scott is Harold F Linder professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study (US). She is the author, most recently, of The Politics of the Veil.