Undressing difference: The hijab in the west

On March 15, 2006, French President Jacques Chirac signed into law an amendment to his country's education statute, banning the wearing of conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools. Prohibited items included a large cross, a veil, or skullcap. The ban was expressly introduced by lawmakers as an application of the principle of government neutrality, du principe de laïcité. Opponents of the law viewed it primarily as an intolerant assault against the hijab, a head and neck wrap worn by many Muslim women around the world. In Politics of the Veil, Professor Joan Wallach Scott offers an illuminating account of the significance of the hijab in France. Scott's lucid, compact examination of the hijab complements previous feminist scholarship on veiling with a close look at its role in a particular time and place - contemporary France - where it has been the subject matter of a unique political discourse. How different is America's political discourse surrounding religious symbols in the schools as compared to the French? I offer a U.S. constitutional perspective on the rights of religious minorities and women in the public schools, and suggest that a ban on the hijab must be considered unconstitutional. A proposal for a national rule against the hijab in public schools or universities would fall flat in the United States. When compared to U.S. approaches to the hijab, the French experience examined by Joan Wallach Scott underscores an important point: there is more than one way to be a modern, multicultural western liberal democracy with a Muslim population, and some ways are better than others.
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