From an article in the present New Yorker:
[M]ore often those [young Muslim] girls [living in France] were under orders [to wear the veil] from their fathers and uncles and brothers and even their male classmates. For the boys, transforming a bluejeaned teen-age sister into a docile and observant “Muslim virgin was a rite de passage into authority, the fast track to becoming a man and, more important, a Muslim man. For the girls themselves, it was the beginning of a series of small exemptions from Frenchnessno sports, no biology, no Voltairethat in the end had nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with isolation. It was also a license for violence. Girls who did not conform were excoriated, or chased, or beaten by fanatical young men meting out “Islamic justice. Sometimes, the girls where gang-raped. In 2002, an unveiled Muslim girl in the cite of Vitry-sur-Seine was burned alive by a boy she had turned down.
Manifestly, this treatment of women is an attempt to achieve power and assert control by a group that feels itself dispossessed of power and denied control. I dont know the historical and cultural details that help explain why young Muslim women proved the victims in this case. It is usually a more “other other: African Americans for red necks in the American south, Francophones for Anglo Canadians, the Irish for the English, teens by adults, immigrants by the native son. Usually, the other is an outsider. It is not usually your sister.
But we can say two things from an anthropological point of view.
First, this is a fateful enterprise that never works. Control of this kind never stills the anxiety that feeds it. As Eldridge Cleaver pointed out in Soul On Ice, this anxiety renews itself. The more you seek to control the other, the more power you give them. And the more you must seek to control them.
Second, any attempt to control the other puts you hopelessly at odds with the Western experiment in openness. This experiment depends upon a willingness to endow everyone with the same opportunities for experiment, with equal access, in the French case, to sports, biology and Voltaire. The moment you insist one group may not have this access, you turn away from your own opportunity for openness. Effectively, you deny yourself the very thing you seek to deny others.
Its as if openness has to happen entirely, if it is happen at all. This is why it never works to say, we are economically open, but not culturally so (as a certain part of the Right is inclined to do) or the converse (as a certain part of the Left is inclined to do). It is difficult to do by halves. (Though I believe that in the early days of experiment, this is precisely what happens. It was, I think, only the gentleman who was allowed to take part in the beginnings of Englands scientific revolution.)
Its ironic that this experiment in closedness is taking place in France, a country and culture that did so much to fund the Western feeling for openness, but that is not now a place a place of exceptional economic or cultural ferment. It may be that there is a cascade at work here: that Muslim boys are doing to Muslim girls what French racists did to them. And this would make the attempt to refuse the veil in public schools a kind of full circle and potentially a renewal of the cascade. France may choose. And they are not choosing only for themselves.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice.
Kramer, Jane. 2004. Taking the Veil: How Frances public schools became the battleground in a culture war. The New Yorker. November 22, 2004.