Ref. :  000011908
Date :  2004-03-22
Language :  English
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The Veil in France (1)

Author :  Rada Iveković

(Paper presented at World Dignity Forum, a conference during World Social Forum, Mumbai, January 2004)

I shall link my ideas on the problems we are facing in France now - the limits of French "laïcité" ("secularism") and the prohibition of Moslem girls' veil at school - to notions of nationhood and women in the former Yugoslavia. Since I have witnessed the same process of communalism and nationalism building up in the Balkans, as well as in India, of course I am more than worried by this fabrication of a "religious" problem out of a social and political issue. This issue arises from the fact that immigration into France as a product of French colonialism, and as unavoidably linked to French colonial policy, has never been publicly discussed.

The central question is, what should be the praxis to improve freedom in the contemporary context, knowing that it consists of both an individual and a collective component, and that these two have to be mutually articulated in such a way that collective interests do not erase individual ones, but that individual ones do not lead to solipsism? This is of course the dilemma of democracy which has always been only a project (never an accomplished or a satisfactorily accomplished fact), and which was never, in the first place, meant to apply to all: "democracy" is itself flawed and constructed on a system of exceptions

There is no difference of principle between gender and other similar divides, as all inequalities are historically constructed. But gender claims "sexual difference" as belonging to nature, or as an essence to justify by analogy to an imaginary "natural" inequality - social, political, economic, cultural inequalities, especially in anything having to do with most aspects of public power. Gender (sexual inequality) is the first and the most explicit expression of the "sharing/splitting of reason" (partage de la raison). Sexual inequality comes in as instrumental to all other forms of discrimination, as the most widely accepted one that works "by analogy" in all other matters too, and that gives its image to all cases.

"Nation", claiming a common origin in an imaginary common birth, resorts to constructing a posteriori this origin as real as if it had always been. For this, it needs the previous general acceptance of the inferiority of women (and the complicity of patriarchy). But both the gender divide, as well as the exclusion on which the nation is established, though mutually and causally intertwined, are expressions of the same and universal division. Both claim "nature" and essentialise the inequality as natural.

The "sex war" (or "gender war") should not be understood as primordial or paradigmatic for other conflicts. But it is true that in any conflict and violence, we find the analogy of sexes as supporting them. Therefore, violence would somehow have its origin in the cultural gesture of refusing the fact that life itself is always owed to the other, and it would be a desperate attempt to re-establish the auto-foundation of the self (l'auto-fondation du propre) and to self-generation (2). In this sense generation, which is at the basis of the idea of nation, conceived only as self-generation, is also potentially (virtually) violent to others and derivatively suicidal.

It is this deep role of sexuality in the constitution of identities that strikes back at us nowadays all over the world. I have witnessed it in the Balkans, in South Asia, in Central America, and today in Europe and in France. At the time when redefinitions of the nation and of the nation-state are assailing us at the end of an era and the beginning of another one of which we can yet hardly discern the contours in international politics, it is necessary to re-examine the national difference where it intersects with the gender one, because we can clearly see that a crucial knot is there. Through its marking the nation and the state - a main feature in the organisation of international relations - gender clearly traverses, informs, organises and shapes all activity, institutions, relations as well as minds. The tangle of gender and nation projects its shade onto all other organisational forms, hence its importance. This is why it is invited to play a role in reshaping our future too.

Further, it is necessary to recognise the link between religion and politics, and particularly the theological origin of state secularism (and of laïcité(3) ) inasmuch they are the secularisation of a divine concept - sovereignty itself(4) : This analysis allows us to better understand why "laicisation" does not always give the expected results: whereas universal projects (such as the "republic", "democracy") have been de-legitimised along with utopias, particularistic (communitarian) claims are more and more insistent and are supported by the general condescendence to cultural, religious etc. essentialisms. It is here that identitarian excesses and misunderstandings such as the one regarding the "Islamic veil" arise. This is because "long live the difference!" is a slogan that can be pressed both by racists and antiracists, for opposite reasons. The origin of the misunderstanding lies in a bad negotiation of the relationship between the universal and the particular, and not at all in the particular (culture, religion) itself or in the universal as such.

The revival of religion or the appearance of "fundamentalist" non-Christian orientations today either in the West, or as a reaction to the West has nothing to do with religion itself, but often represent an attempt by young and immigrant populations to counter their deprivation and exclusion from active political agency and from effective, meaningful citizenship. This is certainly true of Europe, where active citizenship is fading away for everyone (there is a general political demobilisation) and where an important part of the economically active population is more and more often without political rights because it is foreign. But it is true of other parts of the world too, where war, hunger, big migrations and the new general geopolitical international configuration ensure that not only individual autonomy, but also state sovereignty of individual states is rapidly losing meaning.

I have witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, in anticipation of its partition at the end of the eighties (after Milosevic's coup d'etat in the Party in 1987 - Yugoslavia being a one-party state) and during its civil wars over the nineties, the construction of exclusive, aggressive and one could say "racist" state-building nationalisms (in which "race" itself is a construction). Those nationalisms (quite different from the anti-imperialist independence-seeking post-colonial pattern), comparable to what in India used to be called communalism, all addressed themselves to women as bearers of the nation and of soldiers, and addressed the gender issue in this sense. Conversely, the non-nationalist (and here, non-partition) resistance as well as what was left of the Left, ignored women altogether. For the latter, women were not a target group, were not supposed to count as active citizens, and power - even as it slipped out of their own hands, was not to be shared with them.

It is true that the violence, the war itself, and the partition gave the opportunity to many feminist groups and resistance strategies to emerge, which otherwise would not have had a chance to be heard. During the series of wars, it was women and feminists who maintained the links between torn families, severed states, divided cities and between refugees, because women found it easier (though not easy) to travel, as men were possible conscripts and often in hiding either from "their" authorities, of from those of the other side. As was to be expected, unfortunately, once the war stopped, peace conferences organized by male peace specialists excluded women - women who had been maintaining the social fabric and solidarity all the time, and who had worked in the field on peace and reconstruction. The Balkans are known for their extremely patriarchal culture.

During the war itself, everyone has heard of mass rapes in the Balkans or in Bosnia. These rapes were weapons of war. What is less well known is that not only rape itself, but also the discourse about it (not so much, or only as a threat, but especially as an ideologically driven assertion, independent of any evidence) were weapons, quite beyond the fate of individual women. The topic was instrumentalised, and it was one-sidedly instrumentalised, as if one side only raped, burnt villages and performed "ethnic cleansing" (indeed, as if only women of a particular group had been raped). In the occurrence of the rapes as well as in talking about them, women were of course not seen or treated as subjects (agents), but they were hardly even the objects of the rapes. They were actually, like in some cases of mass rape with communal colouring in India - the instruments, or the medium through which one community of men sends a message to another. Rape is here a male-to-male relationship, a social and political "act" of sorts. The individual fate of individual women is lost under the communal or national designation of her belonging to such and such a group. Is it better for a woman to be raped by a member of "her own" community than by a member of another? Yet rape within the community never seemed to be seen as a problem. A public space that had never been interested in rape before had suddenly become concerned about it, supposedly in the "interest" of women. Rape is indeed a political problem, and mass rapes as war weapons have existed in most wars, but its political dimension cannot be reduced to the assertion that "they" rape "our" women. Rape exists and has many uses in a patriarchal milieu where a woman's life has less worth than a man's. One can doubt the sincerity of the sudden interest in the fate of women.

Strangely enough, I have the same feeling today in France, where I witness a sudden public concern for (a particular group of) women and for gender equality: over the issue that broke out in public as the problem of the Moslem girls' scarf worn at school. Nobody seems to know how to link the topics of secularism and sexuality, though their link is at the core of the definition of the nation. Recently, after a completely confused public debate and after the investigation of an independent commission, the president Jacques Chirac opted in favour of a new law that will prohibit "ostentatious religious signs in public schools" (5) and that was passed

The situation is the following: there is a large immigration mainly from the Maghreb (former French colonies of various types) which is not well integrated (main problem: no jobs, poor education, housing and services, while the Welfare State disappears) and which of course was not there in 1905 when the old law on "laïcité" was voted. It may be added that what the French call integration is really assimilation. The problem is today a political, economic and a social one. It translates as "cultural" when some girls under 18 wear a scarf, here perceived as a veil, to school. The problem is not raised for adult women, except when they are civil servants. It should also be said that the number of these girls is very small, maybe a few dozen, but it may well increase drastically as a reaction once the law is applied. As from the autumn of 2004, no one under 18 should be admitted to a public school wearing a big cross, a Jewish kippa, a Sikh turban or a "Moslem veil". The school is secular they say, and should uniformize the students. Others reply that indeed, the school has to be secular in the sense that it should treat all its students equally, but that the students would be better off being educated to secularism than forced into it. But most importantly, that really it is not the students themselves who have to manifest secularism, but the institutions. No end to the controversy seems in sight.

About the girls, it should be added that they wear the scarves for very different reasons: some indeed are forced by their patriarchal families, and those may be the only category to feel protected by the law. Many Moslem girls and women in France have openly acclaimed this law as a way for them to get away from communal constraints, and to retain their personal liberty and independence. The important movement of Suburbia "beurettes" (6) (Ni putes ni soumises)is itself against the veil, though not unanimous regarding the new law. Others wear it in order to be "seen", and to be seen as different. Still others wear it because they have fallen victims to some religious groups and are indeed not well informed about their own tradition. They would be looking for their cultural "roots" (often, it is the daughters, but not the mothers who wear the scarves). For instance, there has recently been a famous example of two convert Moslem sisters excluded from school (the father is a secular Jew, the mother a Catholic). One large group, the most in need of help but who are not sure to be helped at all by the new law, are the girls who wear the scarf in fear of their brothers or bullies from the neighbourhood; they wear the scarf in order to get through the staircase and entrance of their apartment building or through their neighbourhood - without it they are treated as whores and at risk of violence and rape. Still others wear a scarf because they are relatively recent immigrants and because it is worn in their village, without any political intention. Most of them, when relating to their culture or religion, seem to be quite ignorant of it and accessible to different sorts of re-interpretation, as also in need of public recognition both for themselves as well as for the dignity of their origin. Many of them face everyday racism in France. The scarf is often worn out of teen-age spite.

What makes it difficult to spot down, identify and name this racism or explicit discrimination is the typically French universalism. The Law of 1905 officially called the "Law of separation between the State and the Churches", known in France as "the law on "laïcité", came at the end of a process of a long struggle for power between the State and (mainly at the time) the Catholic Church, over land, property and political power. It meant the definitive end of the ancien régime. Parts of France (such as Alsace-Moselle) are even today not under that law, since they joined France later. The concept of laïcité was forged in the context of a dominant religion - Catholicism, which was relegated to the private sphere for everyone because of the presence (in smaller numbers) of Protestants and of Jews. This particular process of secularisation is peculiar to France. Secularisation followed altogether different courses in Protestant countries where the Reform took over, or in other Catholic countries, such as Italy, where Counter-Reform bore its fruits in the form of freedom and the ideals of individual liberty from renaissance on. Or for that matter in Spain, where the expulsion of the Moors and Arabic culture and also of the Jews was contemporary with colonial conquest. Laïcité is at the core of the formation of the nation in France beyond religious differences of that time, that is why it is so important and that is why the French are so paranoid about it. It was the nation-state and no other, or the national state and no other, which is "lay" and secular within Europe(7).

Laïcité is not atheism. It is a principle that allows for the unification of the nation beyond religious, class or other differences. Paradoxically, it is thanks to laïcitéand in its name that geographical conquests were possible, that is, laïcité understood as the equal right to religious cults and its protection by the state when practiced in private. Of course, since Catholicism was the context, it gave much of its colouring to its practical establishment (so state holidays are partly Christian holidays - representing at that time a good and welcome compromise between Catholics and Protestants after a series of religious wars in Europe).Laïcité is actually only possible as the flipside of a monotheism, as Jean-Luc Nancy showed in a paper in Le Monde(8) , and in France that monotheism was prevalently Catholicism.

Today, the practical question is how to effectively inscribe into the nation a population that was absent at its constitution - in this case, the population of Moslem origin, even though many of them certainly claim to be secular or unconcerned with religion of origin. The question may be comparable, though not identical, to the question of how to inscribe in the nation a population whose exclusion from it was the condition of the nation's integration: that was the case in the Americas, settler nations where the nations were formed without the local indigenous population as a political agency, whether because these were exterminated, or because they survived as colonized and completely subdued.

Now, the case seems at first glance easier to solve in the case of contemporary France - as the initial exclusion of the population to be now included, was not the direct and visible pre-condition for the constitution of the nation after the French Revolution. At that time, the Maghrebian population was nowhere to be seen in France. However in another sense, in the context of broader international configurations and of the state of globalisation as it was at that time, and seen also from the historical point of view we have today but which was not available then - their exclusion from the constitution of the nation may well have been a pre-condition: after all it is the wealth from the colonies that fed not only European capitalism and fabulous riches, but even the French Revolution itself and the nation state.

But there is no reversal of history: today the only way to include this population which is already there in Europe, is to open a public debate. This is starting only now in France, and is of course very painful. France has not had the benefit, like Great Britain, of a globalised language through which to export this debate to the globe while avoiding it within its own space(9) . This debate will have to relate not only to the definition of the French nation, but also to the integration, the shape and the scope of Europe. Indeed the nation itself and the pact of secularism will have to be redefined.

On the other hand, the new law will merely seal off the debate and transform into a false religious question what is really a historic political problem. And here we come again to the gender issue: no nation, state or political institution can be established, constructed or defined without a redefinition and reconfiguration of the gender relationship in its political dimension. This is an occasion to act, and one of the crucial spots where to start.

(1). I wish to thank my friend Nivedita Menon for the editing of this paper.
(2).Rada Ivekovic, Le sexe de la nation, Léo Scheer, Paris 2003; Dame Nation, Longo Editore, Ravenna 2003.
(3).I cannot go here into the details of the historical difference between the English-language concept of secularism and the French one of laïcité. For the purpose of this paper we shall take them as near-synonyms.
(4).Roberto Esposito, Communitas. Origine e destino della comunità, Einaudi, Torino 1998 ; Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita, Torino: Einaudi 2002; Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and Its Critics, OUP India, Delhi 1998; Carl Schmitt, Le Léviathan dans la doctrine de l'Etat de Thomas Hobbes. Sens et échec d'un symbole politique, traduit de l'allemand par Denis Tirerweiler, préface d'Etienne Balibar, Seuil, 2002 ; Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, traduit par Marlène Raiola, Seuil, Paris 2002.
(5).Private and religious schools are exempt from this requirement.
(6).Second generation immigrants.
(7).Sophie Bessis, L'Occident et les autres, Paris : la découverte 2002.
(8).« Laïcité monothéiste », Le Monde 01.01.04
(9).I cannot enter here into the important topic of the difference between post-colonial studies in the French and in the English languages (the exist in both, but are perceived as a field only in the second). Indeed, the latter are related to the work of scholars in former colonies through a globalised language. There is no comparable situation for French.

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