Saturday, July 4, 2009

The burqa and the blogger

I know I've dropped the ball in the last week on continuing to blog about proposals in France to ban the wearing of the burqa. It isn't because the story has died -- there have been a number of interesting developments in France, and also tons of play in the American media, from a Daily Show segment to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by an Egyptian-born Muslim feminist titled "Ban the Burqa." (The writer, Mona Eltahawy, refers to Sarkozy and obviously speaks in light of events there, but she's not just just talking about France -- she seems to be arguing for a ban here in the US, or maybe everywhere.) Some just plain bizarre and fascinating stories have also come out -- check out this fashion piece titled "Abayas get glam revamp from designers in Paris" about couture shows of head-to-toe Muslim women's outer garments that took place in Paris the same week as Sarko's endorsement of a ban on the burqa.

I'm following all this with interest (and occasional dismay), but I feel sort of weary every time I try to rev myself up to write about it. (Like, weary beyond what would be explicable based on the fact that I'm getting married this month and writing a dissertation and have been running around like crazy.) I was totally obsessed with the French controversy about the headscarf in schools back in the early-2000s. For a long time, I just didn't understand what the big deal was. Why were the French so upset, so passionate, so divided, about a few girls covering their hair in class? Why did they care? Why was this the issue that seemed to symbolize so much about the strength of the Republican model to so many people?

Trying to find some answers to those basic, naive questions led me down some surprisingly exciting intellectual paths -- many of them going back, back, back into French history as I worked to make sense of the present. Although I no longer do any academic research or writing directly related to my fascination with the veil controversy, in a number of indirect ways that obsession shaped who I am now as a scholar.

It also shaped my perspective on what it means to study a culture of which one is not a part. The questions I listed here are outsiders' questions -- questions that only someone who wasn't French, who lacked an intuitive sense of the culture, could think to pose.* Now, outsiders' questions can be spectacularly dumb. They can be ignorant, insulting, and silly, and they can miss the point by a million miles. Most of the time, they can be answered by people with insiders' knowledge with three sentences and a roll of the eyes. But I also think that occasionally, our attempts to find answers to them can result in fresh-eyed scrutiny of problems (or even the recognition of something as a "problem" for the first time), and thereby produce insightful and important work or reframe research agendas. France and Germany and Australia and India and China all have plenty of brilliant historians of their own, who operate with far more easy access to the archives and insider knowledge of their countries and regions than we Americans do -- so what can we offer that justifies working on their parts of the world? Outsiders' questions -- "what's the big deal?" "why do people here do this, and not that?" "why doesn't anyone ever talk about x?" -- are one of the few things, in my opinion, that we genuinely have to offer.

All of which is a very roundabout way of getting to the point that, right now, my intense interest in this particular issue in France feels a lot more academic (and, specifically, historical) than polemical. I've got no problem saying that I think this is a needless and deeply wrongheaded policy initiative. But I'm so fascinated by the fact that something like this is happening there at all, and with trying, once again, to understand the variety of historical and contemporary factors that have created this situation, that I just don't feel very inspired to extensively elaborate on what I think the absolutely "correct" position on all this would be. I'm more interested in why it matters so much to many people in France -- that is, in what they understand to be at stake in Muslim women's dress -- than in making the case for why those of them arguing one way are right and those of them arguing another other way are wrong.

So I think my weariness when I contemplated continuing to write about this stuff is because I've been feeling irrationally compelled to engage in punditry about it. But there's actually no need for me to do that -- there's no reason WB can't be a space for posing historical questions, not just critiquing contemporary policies.

So my plan is: (1) to continue posting factual updates and links to interesting coverage or commentary, especially in English, and (2) to also try to provide some historical info that I found useful when I was first stumbling around looking for answers to my "what's the big deal?" questions about the headscarf c.2003. (The stuff that still appears relevant this time around.) Some of that historical context is getting great attention in the English-language media -- Michelle Goldberg's piece in the American Prospect, for instance, which heavily cites Joan W. Scott, does a good job situating the controversy within the context of European countries' struggles with growing Muslim minority populations. One context that I do think has been missing from some of this coverage, though, is much mention of France's colonial history and the ways that Islam figured in it, so I'll focus on that. (If anyone thinks that struggles about the veil, with its immense symbolic weight, were born in the 1980s, go read Frantz Fanon's 1959 "Algeria Unveiled" (pdf) right now.)

A related question/plea: does anyone out there know how many of the Stasi Commission's original 2003 recommendations on laïcité besides the "conspicuous religious symbols in schools" one have been adopted? I would really, really love to know.

* Okay, I realize treating nation-states this way, as if there are 100% clearly defined insiders and outsiders, is problematic. Just bear with it as a device to help me make my grandiose generalizations.


  1. I've always thought that one aspect left out of this discussion, especially for those of us who approach it implicitly in terms of a comparison with American multicultural society, is federalism or the lack thereof in France.

    One reason the 1989 controversy became so inflamed was because the local school administration's decision to exclude the girl wearing the head-covering became, in relatively short order, a national issue is that the municipality, department, region or even scholastic academy -- which might have been able to devise a local solution that suited the local context -- did not have the authority (or claim the authority) to act.

    And the current controversy, stirred up by Sarkozy, is the sort of issue that a federalist-minded head of state would not seek out. Sarkozy's "hyperpresidential" style seems therefore to me to exacerbate the ways in which federalism, as a culture of government and not merely a constitutional arrangement, is a major but rarely commented upon structural difference between the two presidential republics.

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  4. In a French school located Casablanca, Morocco, they are trying to exclude mothers of children who wear headscarves from participating in extracurricular school activities: