When asked to stop reading and just write, I couldn’t resist taking this with me on the train. Talal Asad’s essay French Secularism and the “Islamic Veil Affair” is not meant to be a rehearsal of the ‘general from the particular’ type of article but his analysis is so spot on that he had me furiously pencilling in remarks by the second page. Asad is an anthropologist and as one of those he is interested in signs. The kind of signs that point to cultural artefacts and practices that is, not these kinds of signs. He claims that:
[…] if the wearer assumes the veil as an obligation of her faith, if her conscience impels her to wear it as an act of piety, the veil becomes for that reason an integral part of herself. For her it is not a sign intended to communicate something [which the Stasi commission took it to be] but part of an orientation, of a way of being. For the Stasi commission, in contrast, all the wearables mentioned are signs, regarded, furthermore, as displaceable signs. (p.96; bold text is italicised in the original)
It is the State in France (and elsewhere of course) that legally decides what are public and private spaces and so a prohibition of the public wearing of the veil is a counter-transgressive act of the State. It is however, a law against an imagined transgression of the principles of laïcité. Further on, Asad talks about public and private desire and the supposition that religion, as a formerly public desire, has had to be accommodated like all others in the private space. Certain desires then become more publicly acceptable than others, such as the desire to state that all signs of religious belief are “simply socio-psychological facts.” The veil is an imaginary – “a shrouded difference waiting to be unveiled, to be brought into the light of reason” and made a fact like all others, subject to the light of public reason.