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L’affair du Foulard (The Scarf Affair):

The Secular, Religious, and Cultural Essentializations

of the Hijab in France and Quebec

Rawdah Mohamed, wearing a hijab, holding up her hand, which says "Hands off my hijab." (Photo: Rawdah Mohamed)


The predominant concern Seyla Benhabib stresses in The Rights of Others, The Claims of Culture, Another Cosmopolitanism, and Dignity and Adversity is the essentialization of meaning. The codification and association of dress with religion or culture is an example of that essentialization, which (of course) she objects. Reductionist perspectives, where the idea of culture is seen as a property of a group, or the view of an ethnic community as one homogenized cluster lacking diversity from within, serves to potentially legitimize repressive demands from communal conformity. Benhabib stresses that the above essentializes identity, and it fails to embrace a diverse cosmopolitanism. When discussing the ethical, moral, and political discourses, we frequently stress assumptions between cultural and religious practices where “we often do not know what all those practices are in question, or we do not share a common understanding of the disputed practice itself,”[1] which prompts us to ask whether it is religious or cultural. In the end, these questions seem difficult to resolve as cultural and religious practices are constantly re-signified.


Benhabib’s clear position on the discourses that carry cultural generalizations, as well as the exercise of the communicative right to have rights through democratic iterations, appear as a vehicle for secular thinkers to broaden the scope of empathy and imagination in dialogues that include seculars, atheists, agnostics, and religious peers. However, the secular tendency to essentialize identity, when we constantly experience ever-changing cultural meanings, appears arbitrary. Clothing is not an exception. The cultural, religious, and political aspects confining الحجابْ, the hijab or the scarf, in the so-called L’affaire Foulard, or the Scarf Affair[2] is addressed in most of Benhabib’s books. Within the frame of that subject, this essay aims to undertake three key points. The first highlights some of France’s attempts to regulate and ban religious symbols that target Muslim women since the L’affaire Foulard, and how today still carries a long and drawn-out set of public confrontations. How does this ban fit into France’s secularism, or la laïcité? The second subject discusses the danger behind the essentialization of the meaning of the hijab as a cultural and religious dress code. Using Benhabib’s essentialization of meaning, I claim that defining the hijab as a fixed symbol contrasts liberal values of gender equality by the self-defined ‘secular state outlining the proper place of religion and religious practices in the ‘modern world.’ In addition, I argue that this homogenization serves as a symbolic way to diplomatically segregate ‘the other.’ The last section questions whether France’s laws and regulations, in the name of la laïcité, or in Quebec, in the name of secularism, are examples of political theology. On that point, I consider the dangers of regulations by emphasizing their arbitrary and profound antithesis to the cosmopolitan-democratic practices France portrays to the world, while revealing the paradoxes and limitations of liberal-secular thought as well as the inability of western-liberal democracies to accommodate different subjectivities.


How do you think a French worker feels when he sees a family with a man who has maybe three or four wives, about 20 kids, who receives around 50,000 francs in social services, of course without working? ... and if you add the noise and smell ... no wonder the French worker across the landing goes mad.” –Jacques Chirac

These were the words of former French president Jacques Chirac, uttered in 1991 during his time as mayor of Paris. In today's race to the right over asylum, no Canadian politician could survive such an outrageously xenophobic outburst. What deepens this absurdity is that neither mainstream media nor opposition parties did much to slow his rise to the presidency a few years later; he was even “cast as France's saviour in the 2002 elections with his defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate.”[3] Chirac embodied an ambiguous and messianic role as protector of the French people, which appealed to another pillar of French republicanism: la laïcité (the laicism or secularism), that even now remains as a lofty idealism with no clear definition. Laïcité is a specifically French tradition of secularism based on a strict separation of government and religion, although the public, including politicians, often use the words secularism and laïcitéinterchangeably. The English version of Bill 21 uses “laicity” instead; the English word—which derives from “laic[o], an archaic term for someone who is not a cleric—is not an exact or accurate translation.”[4] Simply put, laïcité implies and demands commitment to an inherited understanding of French identity above all things. French secularism was constructed throughout a series of historical events that blossomed with the victory of the republic over the Catholic church. Its three founding juridical principles are the separation of church and state; the freedom of thought; and the free exercise and organisation of worship. Contrary to received opinion, the practical implementation of French secularism has been achieved in a disorganized fashion.


This seeming ambiguity developed because of multifaceted historical events. To highlight a few, historical struggles (since the French Revolution) against a powerful Catholic church from the state wishing to stand as a moral presence independently from religion; laws rooted in the early twentieth century that made French public education secular; as well as rulings that mandated the maintenance of buildings of worship built before 1905. However, many of these actions still remain vague and one-sided. In short, we yet see a very Catholic kind of secularism where the school-year calendar is based around Christian holidays and a series of laws that enable “private faith schools [to] have access to state and local funding in certain conditions where 95% of schools that benefit are Catholic.”[5] It is worth underlining that no school planning included accommodations for religious minorities such as the supply of halal or kosher food in canteens, which created a quasi- “food separatism.”[6] The irony behind the pseudo-act of emancipation from the Catholic church is that, in the end, the Catholic church has been placed in a privileged position in relation to other religions, particularly Islam, in the name of French tradition. This leaves religious minorities under a constant scope for scrutiny and exclusion where, as mentioned earlier, the view of a minority community as a uniform group serves to potentially legitimize repressive demands, especially from the political arena that responds to majority groups.


Recent history shows that the attempts to assimilate minorities by stamping out religious expression can backfire. In the spirit of laïcité, France passed a law (post 9/11) banning religious symbols and clothing in public schools, such as kippahs and headscarves, while a similar law banning the burqa in public spaces was passed in 2010. However, the struggles behind the attempts to justify said laws within the secular domain (laïcité in France) on the one side, or religious on the other, appears to be complex. One of the many struggles is based on the tendency “to define laïcité in terms of some institutional arrangements or formula,”[7] where the tension falls between the maintenance of neutrality in public institutions and the equality between all basic beliefs. Take, for example, the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in public schools; this has been a prevalent issue in many Western democracies, as Benhabib highlights using France, Germany, and her birthplace Turkey as examples. In France, this issue continued through the famous legislation that banned “ostentatious religious symbols”[8] in “public schools in 2004”[9] and still today preoccupies politicians and activists alike. What’s more, instead of integrating minorities, these laws had the effect of increasing the demand for private Muslim schools, keeping Muslims out of the mainstream. Rather than seeing this solely as an example of “the onward march of illiberal Islamophobia, it is more productive to see it as part of a multi-faceted reinterpretation of the foundations of citizenship in France.”[10] Recent events such as l’affair du Foulard, ‘unveiled' many dilemmas concerning “French national identity in the age of globalization and multiculturalism [while] trying to retain French traditions of laïcité, republican equality, and democratic citizenship.”[11] With that in mind, I wish to question theessentialization of the meaning of the hijab to justify laws and regulations that target religious minorities, especially Muslims, under the subject of laïcité. In short, the definition of the hijab as a fixed ‘symbol’ where it involves categories and subcategories from a diverse community.

Historically speaking, over thirty years ago France debated the subject of laïcité for the first time. At the origin of this controversy were three young female college students who refused to remove their headscarves. Briefly summarized, in 1989 three Muslim students who wore الحجابْ, the hijab, or the scarf, were expelled from their school for resisting the schoolboard authorities’ mandate to remove their headscarf. If we situate this event within its historical-politico-religious frame of the time, by the late 1980s, French “voters were no longer conforming to long-standing patterns of political allegiance; class-based politics was giving way to identity politics; and a previously booming postwar economy had become stagnant.”[12] In short, France was facing a crisis of citizenship, to which solutions were urgently required. Carrying heavy historical baggage and its universal pretensions, the so-called French laïcité seemed like a perfect fit. However, considering the countless incidents Muslim women have been facing in France since then, the scarf affair pales in comparison:


Attacks on mosques, the desecration of religious sites, the ban on the headscarf in public schools, the impossibility for certain veiled women to access public services, the inability to accompany their children on school field trips, the rampant insults, harassment, humiliation, physical and verbal aggression they are subject to, racial and ethnic profiling and discrimination, sometimes culminating in physical attacks such as the one in mid-2013 where a veiled woman in Argenteuil lost her baby as a result.[13]


Another important historical context to note is that most of these events commenced post-9/11, where the xenophobic sentiment against Muslim communities was at its peak. In addition, we can highlight the London bombings in 2005, the backlash from Muslims after publications of depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006, as well as the controversial cartoon in the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015. One of the main characteristics of Islamophobia, at least in France, is that it remains rarely denounced. It is consistently perceived as an exaggeration, the result of victimised posturing invented by troublemaking Muslims, who are “incapable of integrating and bending to the requirements of French citizenship.”[14]

L’affaire du foulard, says Benhabib, came to stand for all dilemmas of French national identity in the age of globalization. This globalization is constantly changing and re-signifies culture, religion, and politics as migrations reshape concepts that affect integrations including laws. Hence, L’affaire Foulard appears to confront cultural differences within France where clothing assumes “the function of crucial symbols and complex negotiations between [for example] Muslim religious and cultural identities [on one side] and Western cultures [on the other].”[15] The foremost detail at the core of this controversy is that “we still do not exactly know the meaning behind the girls’ actions.”[16] Were their actions an act of religious subversion, cultural defiance, or simply an adolescent rebellion that called for attention? The simple answer is ‘none and all of the above.’ Benhabib succinctly claims that “the girls’ voices were not heard much in this heated debate.”[17] Based on that last note alone, I claim that, because “it is not very clear exactly what constitutes [as] a genuine desire”[18] or motive from the three college students, the arguments from either the supporters or the critics of L’affaire Foulard on the hijab lacks sustainability. More so, because this is not clearly defined, critics of the subject are tempted to shape their own positions to accommodate radical rhetoric, especially the discourse on French laïcité, where the political conversation is confronted as it seeks to control a particular kind of speech that takes over the public sphere.


I find two fundamental grounds to support my hypothesis that takes on Talal Asad’s discursive tradition, a world-renowned anthropologist and specialist in the Middle East and Islam. First, the discourse of “tradition’ is not necessarily a synonym for religion or the absence of secular freedom; second, neither authenticity nor obedience belong to tradition;”[19] so, and building on Benhabib’s thesis, one can see that the symbolism and representation of the hijabemerges essentialized not only from the seculars but also from the three college students. Moreover, we can contend that as secularists essentialize clothing, those wearing clothing might essentialize its meaning as well, just like the privileged who do not see privilege. This observation lets us claim how we re-signify over time, and those doing the re-signifying, including the three college students, may not see it this way. In short, tradition, religion, and politics are intertwined within the image behind a particular conflict. As Talal Asad puts it, “living a tradition is not, strictly speaking, a matter of justifying obedience to an authority”[20] (i.e., the girls’ parents or a religious mentor). Therefore, in the case of the hijab, I ponder whether we can allege that the three students had a clear view of the meaning of their scarves. Of course, that remains unanswered. However, it is fair to underline that “to assume that the meaning of [the three girls’] actions is purely one of religious defiance of the secular state [also] denigrates these women’s own capacity to define their own actions.”[21] As a result, like a domino effect, the women themselves and possibly supporters have to learn to provide justifications for their choice where, most of the time, said justifications do not satisfy the public sphere. At the end, I question the need for justification, which reflects and enhances who is in position of power.


Behind the essentialization of clothing, the view of the hijab appears as a religious defiance against secularization of the public, in addition to the prevalent interpretation of the veil branded as “backward and oppressing [and all] those who accept to wear it accept it as a mandated piece of clothing.”[22] The paradox is that the interpretation of ‘secularism’ also seems to be essentialized. On the one hand, secularism is defined as a neutral-unbiased position; on the other hand, any “exercise of civil power favours one definition of religion over others through a specific normative understanding of religion and religious symbols.”[23] Once more, emphasizing the one in charge whose intentions aim “to treat the beliefs of others from different religions by institutionalizing an entire religion.”[24] The secular position then simultaneously defines and re-conceptualizes religion and religious sensitivities in the public sphere and, along with it, discloses a homogeneous idea of what constitutes a repressive symbol toward the woman’s body, free from oppression, as the hijabrepresents.


When Benhabib offers the cases of the headscarf in France, Germany, and Turkey, she does not simply offer a case of convergences or divergences of a religious item of clothing. She underlines the political symbolism behind with “careful state regulation and monitoring where the three states read the wearing of the hijab as a potential political threat.”[25] According to Benhabib, the essentialization of the meaning of clothing (i.e., as religious) is an example of political theology, which suggests a profoundly counter-democratic tendency that appears to be emerging through the legal systems of Europe and Quebec. Reflecting on the dangers of regulations within the state legislative strata, I observe a France-Quebec symbiotic stance toward religious symbolic objects where political discourses from both use ‘tradition’ as a dialectic way to address rights and identities against the other, or the minority. If we pay close attention to Quebec’s Bill 21 (2019, chapter 12), the similarities toward the spirit of French laïcité, political objectives, and aims are remarkable:


The Act proposes to prohibit certain persons from wearing religious symbols while exercising their functions. However, the prohibition does not apply to certain persons holding positions at the time the bill is introduced, subject to the conditions specified by the Act. The Act amends the Charter of [H]human [R]rights and [F]freedoms to specify that persons must maintain proper regard for State laicity in exercising their fundamental freedoms and rights. The Act has effect despite certain provisions of the Charter of [H]human [R]rights and [F]freedoms and the Constitution Act, 1982. [26]


After careful examination, one can observe that the first and fourth statements in the first chapter contradict each other: (1) the separation of State and religions and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. What’s more, the position of Quebec as a state to rule over its traditions are clear when the Bill supersedes Canada’s 1982 Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. From a historical evaluation, experts on Quebec history and culture stress that “there is a lot to consider in this fight over balancing rights of religious minorities with the desire for legislated secularism.”[27] Additionally, the Act in itself reaffirms Quebec’s autonomy as a state by stressing that “the Québec nation has its own characteristics,”[28] as obfuscated as that may seem; so, the cultural aspects of the state are essentialized and homogenized under one solid view. One cannot ignore the long political battle and the historically precarious relationship between the province of Quebec and the Canadian federal government. Despite the current controversy of Bill 21, legal issues originate, in part, as the federal government of Canada struggles to address Quebec's constitutional concerns and its “demands for sovereignty and increased recognition of its francophone population for over a century.”[29] It is also crucial to recognize the unpopularity of Bill 21 among the Canadian voting public, with 59 percent of Canadian voters opposing the Bill, as well as multiple constitutional challenges from national organizations such as “the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims…[however] the Quebec Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of Canada have dismissed all requests to suspend the Act.”[30] Beyond the mere comparative analysis that finds significant coincidences between the French laïcité and the case of Quebec’s Act (Bill 21) vis-à-vis the laicity of the state, both cases highlight Benhabib’s example of political theology. The irony is that the secularist-unbiased position, appearing as axiomatic, feeds the authoritarian political theology while failing to bring any benefit to the controversies behind the secular-versus-religious binary oppositions.

The analogies between the French laïcité and the so-called Québécois secularism is also addressed by QuébécoisCharles Tylor (co-authored with Jocelyn Maclure) in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. Maclure and Taylor identify the strictness of the French Republican model as a ‘closed secularism,’ setting “strict limits on the religious symbols in the public sphere and seeking state neutrality and religious disestablishment, in opposition to an ‘open secularism’ that emphasizes the liberal ends of secularism and tails freedom of religion and conscience, and equality.”[31] The authors see the open-secularism model as “well-suited” for the Québécois context; I find their last assertion troubling. While I agree with their premise of open dialogue within the liberal democratic arena, just as Benhabib encourages, I reject their conclusion regarding what is well-suited for Quebec as it echoes a one-size-fits-all idea that views an entire and diverse community as homogenized. The use of secular discourses that limit religion in the public place needs to be explained within the context of how language is re-signified. As stated earlier, the interpretation of ‘secularism’ also seems to be essentialized because the term secular took on a different meaning; it has been re-signified since its origins where, to use Jürgen Habermas’ words, “has had the meaning of tearing down the walls of the monasteries and spreading the radical commands of the Lord across the world without compromise.”[32] Since it reached the political boundaries, such as the courts of France, it is used as a way to resolve cases such as the hijab. In dialogue between Taylor and Habermas, the latter clearly demarks this difference within the modern meaning of secular:


The term secularization no longer applies to the universalization of radical beliefs and practices across the Christian world, reaching out from the monastic centers to the profane spheres of everyday social life. Secular reasons do not expand the perspective of one’s own community but push for mutual perspective taking so that different communities can develop a more inclusive perspective by transcending their own universe of discourse. Since the religious legitimation of Christian kings has been substituted with a liberal one, the constitution now provides the source for reasons that are supposed to be shared not only by different religious communities but also by believers and nonbelievers alike.[33]


In other words, the transition from religious to liberal constitutions left challenges behind due to modern religious pluralism and the constantly re-signified, secular, or religious interpretations. When it comes to laws and regulations, controversies as expected as long as there is dialogue involved, or the ‘democratic iterations’ as Benhabib incites. She stresses the common belief that modern constitutional democracies can limit or rule human rights, universal moral equality, and exclusionary concepts such as in L’affaire Foulard. However, her alternative sets “on processes of iterations among actors, or the universal practice of dialogue within the cosmopolitan frame.”[34] Even when the controversies, says Benhabib, are far from over, in a well-functioning democracy there will be a contentious dialogue - a series of contested iterations -“between the demos and other representative bodies about the limits of their jurisdiction and authority.”[35]


Drawing on what is highlighted in this paper, mostly from Seyla Benhabib, we can see that there are sufficient reasons to rethink how we imagine the symbolism of clothing within democratic practices. I chose the case of l’affaire Foulard, or the Scarf Affair, for three reasons. First, it provides an outstanding depiction of the intersection between linguistic, legal, cultural, religious, and political meanings. Second, it challenges rhetoric dialogues on the right to freedom of conscience, to which all humans are intitled. Third, it confronts, tests, and challenges the principle of Frenchlaïcité, as juxtaposed with Quebec’s secular, under contradictory political discourses with clear Islamophobic means.

As a result of what it has been highlighted, the hijab falls under the essentialization of meaning of clothing and the reductionist view of an entire community under one homogenized cultural-religious assessment, in part, due to uncontested liberal-democratic institutions ignoring that cultural and religious practices are constantly re-signified. More so, and within the secular-religious iterations, that language is re-signified as cultural resignifications evolving into new meanings.



[1] Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 12-13 [2] France in 1989. [3] “The reality of l'affaire du foulard.” The Guardian. February 25, 2005. Accessed December 20, 2021. www.theguardian.com/world/2005/feb/25/france.religion. [4] Elizabeth Winkler, “Is it Time for France to Abandon Lacit?,” in The New Republic. January 7, 2016, accessed January 3, 2022. newrepublic.com/article/127179/time-france-abandon-laïcité. [5] Ibid. [6] Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, “The School Challenged by the Halal Food Space,” in French National Centre for Scientific Research, 2019, 2. [7] Charles Taylor, “Why We Needs a Radical Redefinition of Secularism” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 41-42. [8] www.legifrance.gouv.fr/dossierlegislatif/JORFDOLE000017759496/. Accessed December 24, 2021. [9] Ibid., “LAW n ° 2004-228 of March 15, 2004, regulating, in application of the principle of secularism, the wearing of signs or clothing showing a religious affiliation in public schools, colleges and high schools.” My own translation. [10] Emile Chabal, “Why citizenship (still) matters in France,” SSRC The Immanent Frame, April 4, 2016, accessed December 24, 2021. tif.ssrc.org/2016/04/04/why-citizenship-still-matters-in-france/. [11] Seyla Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011), 173 [12] Ibid. [13] Marwan Mohammed, “France needs to start facing up to Islamophobia,” The Guardian. July 26, 2013, accessed December 29, 2021. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/26/france-denounce-islamophobia-veil-riots. [14] Ibid. [15] Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 95. [16] Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity, 174. [17] Benhabib, Dignity, 175. [18] Talal Asad, Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason, 1st ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 53. [19] Asad, Secular Translations, 92. [20] Asad, 93. [21] Benhabib, 174. [22] Seyla Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, edited by Robert Post (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 57. [23] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press 2003), 208. [24] Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, 58. [25] Benhabib, 181. [26] Marwan Mohammed, “France needs to start facing up to Islamophobia,” The Guardian. July 26, 2013, accessed December 29, 2021. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/26/france-denounce-islamophobia-veil-riots. [27] Alex Ballingall, “How Secularism Became Quebec’s Religion: The distinct path to Bill 21,” in The Star, April 5, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2021. www.thestar.com/politics/2019/04/05/how-secularism-became-quebecs-religion-the-distinct-path-to-bill-21.html. [28] http://www2.publicationsduquebec.gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge.php?type=5&file=2019C12A.PDF [29] Stephanie Chan, “Quebecs Bill 21: When Provincial Autonomy Threatens Minority Rights,” in Columbia Undergraduate Law Review, July 5, 2021, accessed January 2, 2022. www.culawreview.org/journal/quebecs-bill-21-when-provincial-autonomy-threatens-minority-rights. [30] “Ichrak Nourel Hak, et al. v. Attorney General of Québec,” in SCC Cases, accessed January 2, 2022, decisions.scc-csc.ca/scc-csc/scc-l-csc-a/en/item/18262/index.do. [31] Charles Tylor and Jocelyn Maclure, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, 1st ed., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 58-60. [32] Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Butler, Judith, and Cornel West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, 1st ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 64-65. [33] The Power of Religion, 66. [34] Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 219. [35] Ibid.


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