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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Excluding Muslim Women: From Hijab to Niqab, from School to Public Space

Sylvie Tissot

On July 13, 2010, French deputies voted in favor of a law that forbids women from wearing the “integral veil” (or niqab, an outfit hiding the entire face except the eyes) in public spaces. If women do so, the police will be able to arrest them and fine them or, alternatively, force them to attend a program aimed at teaching them “citizenship.” Like many people, President Nicolas Sarkozy used the wrong word to state clearly that the “burkha” is not compatible with the “values of the French Republic”1 (the burkha, unlike the niqab, has a grid for the eyes, unlike the niqab targeted by the law). The country’s top juridical body, the Conseil d’État, has questioned the constitutional validity of the law, and many jurists have warned that the European Court of Human Rights will very likely overturn it. Yet the government has dismissed all legally grounded arguments, and the conservative parliamentary majority voted for the law, which was also approved by a few prominent socialist and communist leaders.

Beyond the affair’s legal dimension is another quite striking aspect: the huge gap between what politicians and commentators suddenly insist is a serious problem in need of urgent action and the evidence for such a claim. This discrepancy was already evident in 2004, when the government banned pupils from wearing a simple hijab (a religious head covering of any kind) in public high schools, even though teachers’ complaints about this issue had dropped from 300 in 1994 to 150 in 2003.2 It was unclear why there was a pressing need to pass a national law to address this declining number of disputes, which were, for the most part, settled locally. Similarly, in June 2009, a parliamentary commission decided to investigate the problem of women wearing the niqab, at a time when, according to official estimates, somewhere between a few hundred to two thousand inhabitants (out of 64 million) wore them.

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Many thanks to Todd Shepard and Noëlle Dupuy for their careful reading of this article. All translations from French to English are mine.

  1. Declaration of President Sarkozy’s spokesperson, April 21, 2010.
  2. Pierre Tevanian, Le voile médiatique: Un faux débat; “L’affaire du foulard islamique” (Paris: Raisons d’Agir), 23 – 24.


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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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