From an article in


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 Frenchness—no sports, no biology, no Voltaire—that 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 don’t 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.

It’s 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 England’s scientific revolution.)

It’s 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 France’s public schools became the battleground in a culture war. The New Yorker. November 22, 2004.

9 thoughts on “From an article in

  1. Independent George

    Excellent post, but, to be blunt – WHY?!!!

    Dude, you just got married. We’ll still be here when you get back. Now go away already.

  2. Pingback: Quotulatiousness

  3. Ennis

    A tragic situation. And not one where we can let the perpetrators off the hook b/c they’re also an oppressed and disposessed group.

    It’s situations like that which make me just …

    p.s. Agreed with IG — do you want to be thinking about this right now?

  4. Anonymous

    Or maybe those Muslim men are just religious? They want the women to wear veils because that’s what they think Allah wants.

  5. Joe

    May I play Devil’s Advocate here? What are the motivations behind the desire to “control” the propensity of people you have never met in other countries you have never laid eyes on?

    Say you are a comfortable American in your easy chair reading the New Yorker and sick to your stomach over the horrible treatment of these girls. Is that not an anxious reaction, derived from a dispossession of power?

    When you help justify, say, the invasion of Afghanistan by rolling tape of Muslim girls in a classroom, or showing their eyebrows, or of older women voting, aren’t you asserting control over an other?

    If so, then wouldn’t the same two conclusions fall from it? I think at a minimum the first one does. You give power to Muslim men and boys by placing this pressure to change on them, and it feeds upon itself.

    The second conclusion is more complicated. Does openness mean tolerance of diversity here, as it often does? If so, you have to be “open” to other gender norms, do you not? A sound experiment in openness requires a control. Maybe the Muslim girls are like the unfortunate sick people in the clinical trial who are not told they have been taking a placebo. That practice is justified in part by the assertion that since you do not know if the experimental drug is effective, you do not _know_ the control patients are getting the shaft.

    Disclaimer: the above is not my actual opinion.

  6. John Deighton

    A letter to the New Yorker of 11/29 makes a nice footnote to your thoughts on veils and the unintended consequences of control. I’ll quote the whole letter.

    “The photograph of the naked Act Up members in Richard Avedon’s photo-essay was one of the last works by a great master of photography. But that doesn’t justify your decision to print it in a mass-circulation magazine that children can see in school libraries and medical offices and on their parents’ coffee tables. Conservative readers look forward to your thoughtful editorial content, only to be offended by such “art.” As the Election Night mandates clearly showed, conservative values are still alive and well in America. The inclusion of that photograph illustrates how out of touch you are with the values of many of your readers.

    Frank Laird
    San Diego, Calif.”

    The frank Mr. Laird possesses a gift for clarifying by ironic inversion. He gives voice to the consumer’s imperial dream: “OK, New Yorker, you name yourself after an east coast metropolis, you spend decades expressing and impressing on the culture of its community, but I’m your reader now thanks to your thoughtful editorial content and the badge value of your logo on my coffee table, so gotcha! Now it’s me you gotta please. Sure it was your alien exotic ways that drew me to you, but now I’m in charge so cover your face.” The idea that products evolve to coincide perfectly with the needs of consumers is an idea only a control fanatic could love. It is precisely the controller’s errors, the misfits, the clashes among tastes, that keep the whole game in motion. Mr. Laird asks us to entertain the idea of a magazine out of touch with the values of its readers. That’s a stretch, so long as subscription is volitional. I prefer to think of readers like Mr. Laird as subscribers mercifully out of touch with the complexity of their own personal values. And therein lies hope. Islamic fundamentalists and Mr. Laird of San Diego want to want bodies covered up. The irreducible ambiguity of their real wants is our long-run protection against their fulfillment.

  7. Student

    Wow.. You cut out the only section of the 12 page article that diminishes the veil. The rest of it is all pro veil…

  8. Anonymous

    Questions To Ask Frank Laird:

    20 Million people have died of AIDS worldwide. There is still no cure. Ronald Reagan refused to even say the word “AIDS” in public, for the first 6 years of the epidemic. (Until his friend Rock Hudson died.) What harm does printing a photo do?

    Do you even -have- kids of your own, Mr. Laird? Or are you butting into other people’s business?

    Kerry beat Bush by a landslide mandate of 18% in New York State. That’s statewide. In Brooklyn, Kerry beat Bush 81 percent to 16. In the Bronx, Kerry beat Bush 82% to 18%. In Manhattan, Kerry won 82 to 16.

    Are you at-all familiar with the name ‘Dorothy Parker’, Mr. Laird?

    Don’t like these questions? Ask him your own:

    [name and address removed by request]

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