Undressing Difference: The Hijab in the West

17 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2008 Last revised: 17 Jun 2009

See all articles by Anita L. Allen

Anita L. Allen

University of Pennsylvania Law School


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.

Keywords: hijab, muslim women, veiling, laicrite, yarmulke, religious freedom, tolerance, religion, religious practices, clothing

Suggested Citation

Allen, Anita L., Undressing Difference: The Hijab in the West. Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Vol. 23, Pg. 208, 2008, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 08-18, Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 08-27, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1125316

Anita L. Allen (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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