If there was any doubt about the motivation of the ban on islamic face coverings adopted by the French National Assembly in July, the actions of the Sarkozy government in August put them to rest.
The issue is not the emancipation of women, despite all the pious rhetoric that we have heard on equality as being a âprimordial valueâ of the French nation. It is not the danger of terrorists and thieves hiding behind burqas to blow up buildings or rob banks – the exemptions provided by law for motorcycle helmets, fencing and ski masks, and carnival costumes quickly dispel this argument. And it is not a question of imposing openness and transparency as an aspect of French culture.
Ban what the French call “the full veil“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 – of nationhood. It is part of it. a cynical attempt by Sarkozy and his party to capture the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim animosity that has brought electoral gains to the right-wing Front National party and to disarm the socialist opposition, which has so far offered little resistance to the xenophobic campaign.
The action of the National Assembly comes on July 13, as the country prepares to celebrate the birth of republican democracy during the revolution of 1789. The ban on the burqa on the eve of the National Day is an affirmation clear 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 message conveyed the message that if national identity was in trouble, immigrants were the source. The president and his minister called for a nationwide conversation on the meanings of national identity. There had to be contests and town halls to articulate what it meant to be truly French. When that effort failed, they came up with more drastic measures. Sarkozy proposed this month to withdraw citizenship French citizens born abroad if they have been convicted of offenses such as threatening the life of a police officer. Children born in France to foreign parents (once presumed to benefit automatically from nationality) would be refused nationality if there was evidence of juvenile delinquency.
This month also began the expulsion of the Roma, who were found to be camped illegally across the country and responsible for all kinds of crimes. Despite an outcry from those who denounced the deportations as echoes of Vichy (the government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s), these activities made “security” a top priority for politicians and pollsters. opinion. It remains to be seen whether he will issue a new mandate to Sarkozy in 2012.
The immediate effect is to evoke an imaginary specter in which foreigners put France in danger and are accused of all its economic, social and political problems. Instead of real solutions to economic stagnation, high unemployment, discrimination against minorities, violence in the suburbs and the deterioration of the education system, to name a few, the country is being offered a nightmarish vision of veiled women and their male masters, an enemy within the frontiers that must be discovered and, thus, 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 subject of nationalist campaigns, not only in France. , but in other Western European countries. country too. What is it about the Covered Women that arouses the anger and fear of so many, including some Western feminists? How have politicians, many of whom have worked hard to keep women out of political office, able to use feminist themes of empowerment and equality in âclash of civilizationsâ politics? Why has it been so easy to identify the veil as a single instrument of oppression, even when ethnographers and historians tell us it has multiple meanings, and when some women who wear it insist on it? to have chosen because it positively signifies their femininity and their devotion to God?
One answer – and there are many more to explore – is that the focus on the rights of Muslim women overlaps some of the dangerous elements of the âsecure stateâ. The claim to protect women justifies state intervention in religious, family and public life that would otherwise be unacceptable.
The same politicians who have long resisted sexual harassment laws and the suppression of domestic violence become advocates for women when they are identified as Muslim offenses. This sets aside the persistent problem of gender inequality as a national problem. And politicians are showing their prowess to their national constituencies by taking action to protect these allegedly vulnerable women from men who would violate their rights: the bill imposes a small fine of â¬ 150 on a woman wearing a burqa in public, while the alleged men Forcing her to submit risks one year in prison and a â¬ 30,000 fine.
The role of the state is figured as protecting its citizens (the analogy is with gallant men protecting the weaker sex), even if this requires the suspension of freedoms in the name of security – now the country’s highest priority. .
Joan Wallach Scott is Harold F Linder Professor of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study (USA). She is the author, more recently, of La politique du voile.