In Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott thoroughly examines the tensions between Muslims living in France and the French Republicans who run the governmental system. A large dispute arose when French high school students were banned from wearing headscarves at their schools. Many saw the ban as clear racial discrimination while others argued that a clear separation of church and state was needed and that religion has no place in the school system.
As Wallach describes on page 172, many French women (specifically feminists who had long been fighting for gender equality) sought to ban the headscarf. To them, the veil was a sign of sexism and oppression. As Wallach explains,
“Entirely forgotten in the glorification of the freedom of French sexual relations was the critique of theses same feminists, who for years have decried the limits of their own patriarchal system, with its objectification of women and overemphasis on their sexual attractiveness. It is the power of their unconscious identification with the republican project – their own acceptance of the psychology of denial – that led many of them to unequivocally condemn the headscarf/veil as a violation of women’s rights and to talk as if the status of women in France were not a problem at all. Banning the headscarf became an act of patriotism.”
By classifying the practices of another culture as “more sexist” than their own, French women justified the gender inequality that they faced in their daily lives. However, for Muslim women, the veil is a way to acknowledge sexuality and embrace it. They do not view headscarves as oppression. The different ways that the cultures view sexuality creates a rift that is hard to climb over, specifically for this issue.
The disagreement about laws and fairness and discrimination is indeed a problem, but the way we discuss it might actually be worse. Often, we throw around words without a second thought, but words hold tremendous power. When we talk about bringing Muslim women up to the standard of their western sisters, we create A LOT of problems. This creates a hierarchy, saying that western women are inherently better than Muslim women. It also creates a divide between Muslim and French. “Bringing one up” to the standards of the other implies that a woman cannot be Muslim and French or Muslim and western. Statements like this only serve to create divides and to deepen conflicts. They also neglect to take into account the viewpoints of other cultures. In this case, refusing to acknowledge that the veil is a sign of equality, empowerment and Feminism to Muslim women. It is not a problem that the French do not feel compelled to wear a headscarf,; the problem comes with the disparity between cultural beliefs and the lack of understanding that ensues.
Although the banning of the headscarf in French high schools is simply one argument in one country, the general premise of the situation can be found around the world, and the way France chooses to deal with this issue will no doubt influence many other nations. Immigrants exist worldwide; and discrimination is common. There will always be people living in the same communities who hold different beliefs. Ethical dilemmas will always exist. What matters is how we choose to deal with them. The chances of traditions of another culture fitting into the beliefs and context of your own culture are slim. To live harmoniously, we must open our eyes not only to other practices and beliefs, but also to the systems that underlie them. We do not have to agree, but we must learn to be tolerant if we are to work for a world without social injustice.