Alain Badiou, "The law on the headscarf is a pure capitalist law"

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To coincide with the publication of three important works on the intersections of race, class and feminism—Christine Delphy's Separate and Dominate, Vron Ware's Beyond the Pale and Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman—we re-publish an essay by Alain Badiou on the French law on the headscarf, originally published in his Polemics. Against rising Islamaphobic currents in France, Badiou maintains: 'the enemy of thought today is property. It is commerce, and such things as souls, but not faith.'



1. A few pleasant republicans decided one day to argue that a law was necessary to ban girls wearing scarves over their hair. First, ban it at school, then elsewhere, and everywhere if possible. Did you hear me say a law? A law! The president of the Republic was as limited a politician as he was unsinkable. Totalitarianly elected by 82 per cent of voters, including all the socialists, people from whom a number of the pleasant republicans in question were recruited, he nodded in agreement: a law, yes, a law against a few thousand young girls who put the headscarf in question over their hair. The scabby, mangy brats! And they're Muslims too! That is how, once again, similar to the capitulation at Sedan, Pe'tain, the Algerian War, the double-dealing of Mitterrand, villainous laws against undocumented workers, France has stunned the world. After the tragedies, the farce.

2. Yes, France has finally found a problem worthy of itself: banning scarves from a few girls' heads. One could say that the decline of this country is complete. The Muslim invasion, diagnosed long ago by Le Pen and confirmed today by some indubitable intellectuals, has met its match. The battle of Poitiers was a cakewalk, Charles Martel only a hired gun. Chirac, the socialists, the feminists and the Enlightenment intellectuals suffering from Islamophobia, will win the battle of the headscarf. From Poitiers to the headscarf: the reasoning is sound, and the progress considerable.

3. Grandiose causes require new types of arguments. Like this one, for example: the headscarf should be banned because it is a symbol of male power (the father, the older brother) over young girls and women. So we'll banish the girls who stubbornly persist in wearing it. In short: these girls and women are oppressed, so they must be punished. It's a little like saying: 'This woman has been raped, throw her in Jail.' The headscarf issue is so important that it deserves a logical system with renewed axioms.

4. Or, on the other hand, this argument: it's the women themselves who freely choose to wear  this  damned  headscarf, the rebels, the little brats! So they must be punished. Wait a moment: but isn't it a symbol of male oppression? Do the father and big brother play no part in the affair? So, where does the need to ban the headscarf come from? From the fact that it is ostentatiously religious. These brats flaunt their belief. Go stand in the corner with your back to the class.

5. So, either it is the father and big brother, and 'feministically' the headscarf must be torn off, or else it's the girl's sticking to her own belief, and 'secularly' it must be torn off. There is no such thing as a good headscarf. Bare heads! Everywhere! As it used to be said - even the non-Muslims said it - let everyone go out bare-headed!

6. Today's republic: down with hats!

7. Take special note of the fact that the father and the big brother of the headscarved girl are not simple parental accompaniments. It is frequently insinuated, and sometimes openly declared, that the father is a brutish worker, a poor devil come straight out of a village to be tied to Renault's assembly lines. An archaic bloke. And stupid. The big brother is a dope-dealer. He's modern, but corrupt. Sinister housing estates [banlieues]. Dangerous classes.

8. The Muslim religion adds to the defects of other religions this extremely serious fact: in France, it's the religion of the poor.

9. Viewed from this angle the headscarf is: the poor oppressing the poor under the eyes of a poor God. 'Disgusting!' says the petit bourgeois, whose affluence no longer believes in anything but its self-perpetuation.

10. Someone who'll recognize himself here, and with whom I debated the issue of the headscarf some years back, once said to me: 'So you want hair to be a sexual symbol that for such ends must be hidden?' I myself want nothing. But, lastly, remember Baudelaire: O fleece! Curls rippling round the shoulders! Hair / Thick with the scent of langourous perfume! / What bliss! To shake it, kerchief - like - here, there; / Wake sleeping memories, waft them through the hair, / Filling, this night, our alcove's darkling gloom. / Devil! A fantasmatic Muslim! [Diable! Une Jantasmatique de musulman!]

11. I remember the time when, by untying her hair (ah! softly, impalpably falling onto her shoulders!) a woman made known her amorous consent. Was that an affront to secularism? An imprisonment of femininity? Perhaps, perhaps . . .

12. Picture a high-school principal, followed by a squad of inspectors armed with tape measures, scissors and books on Jurisprudence, on their way to the school entrance to inspect whether or not the headscarves, skullcaps and other hats are 'ostentatious'. What about that large headscarf like a stamp perched on a chignon? Or that skullcap the size of a two-euro coin? All very suspect! The small one might well be the ostentatious version of the big one. But what do I see now? Watch out! It's a top hat! Alas! Questioned about top hats, Mallarme' once said: 'Who- ever put on such a thing cannot take it off. The world would end, but not the hat.' Ostentation for eternity.

13. Secularism. A rust-proof principle! Three or four decades ago at school same-sex classes were forbidden, girls weren't allowed to wear trousers, there was catechism, chaplaincy. Communion was solemn, with the boys in white arm-bands and the pretty things under tulle  veils. Real veils, they were, not Just headscarves. And you want me to regard wearing that headscarf as criminal? That symbol of not keeping pace, of a reminder of the past, of a temporal entanglement? Ought we expel these young ladies who pleasantly mingle here today? Go ahead, let the capitalist machine grind on. Regardless of the comings and goings, the repentances, or the arrivals of workers from afar, capitalism will work out how to substitute the fat Moloch of merchandise for the dead gods of religions.

14. As it happens, isn't business the really big religion? Next to this, don't these staunch Muslims look like an ascetic minority? And are not the ostentatious symbols of this degrading religion to be read on trousers, T-shirts, sneakers etc., names like Nike, Chevignon, Lacoste? Is it not even pettier to be the sandwich-woman of a company at school than it is to be the faithful of a God? If we're to strike at the heart of the target, if we've got to think big, we know what's required: a law against brand names. Chirac, get to work. Prohibit the ostentatious signs of Capital, and don't flinch.

15. Ah what! Is it the duty of women to go nude? Is it imperative to have the thighs uncovered? Tits too? Pierced bellybuttons obligatorily bared? At a swimming pool in a provincial town, certain times were reserved to women only, whence the bathing and laughter of pious ladies who ordinarily shut themselves away. The mayor put an end to all this with a forceful argument: 'Women's bodies should not be hidden from view.' But of course! All women in the nude! And make it snappy!

16. Clarify something for me. What characterizes the feminist and republican rationality about what is and is not shown of the body across different times and places? To my knowledge, still to this day, and not only in schools, neither breasts, nor pubic hair, nor penises are shown. Should I get angry over the fact that these bits are 'hidden from view'? Should I be suspicious of husbands, lovers, big brothers? It wasn't so long ago in the countryside in France - and it is still the case in Sicily and elsewhere - that widows wore black veils, black stockings, mantillas. One doesn't have to be the widow of an Islamic terrorist to do that.

17. But I understand that the obligation is tendentially toward nudity. The Journalists of Libe'ration have always hailed the coming of the miniskirt as an infallible sign of the imminent fall of totalitarianisms. The swallow of the miniskirt signals the spring of human rights. All excessive covering up of the body is suspicious. The battle for nude breasts at the beach was won by a knock-out. One cannot sell, it is impossible to sell, cars, caged canaries, concrete mixers or curlers except with a trading sign showing practically naked women. Brassens, who twenty years ago considered himself to be 'the pornographer of the phonograph' today seems more prudish than a church mouse - if that. The so-called mice demand today, each one more loudly than the other, the right to homosexual marriage for their priests.

18. We have gone from the feminist slogan 'my body belongs to me' to the prostitutional slogan 'my body belongs to everyone'. Property, immanent to the first, led, unsound advice, to the second. From property to being put up for auction; the end result is great.

19. Curious, isn't it, the rage harboured by so many women feminists (in Elle, for example) towards a few girls in headscarves, to the extent that they went so far as to help give poor old President Chirac the Soviet-style score of 82 per cent, and then asked him to crack down on them in the name of the law? All the while, however, the prostituted feminine body is everywhere, the most humiliating pornography universally sold, and advice for the sexual exhibition of bodies crams the pages of magazines for teenagers.

20. A simple explanation: a girl must show what she has to sell. She must show what she's got to offer. She must indicate that hereafter the circulation of women shall obey the generalized model, and not a restricted economy. Pour scorn on the bearded father and big brothers! Long live the global market! The generalized model, it's the top model.

21. It used to be taken for granted that a woman had the inviolable right to be able to undress in front of the person of her choosing. But no. Now, it is imperative to hint at undressing at all times, to be in a permanent state of undress. Whoever keeps covered up what she has on the market is not a loyal businesswoman.

22. A propos of beards. We know that Luc Ferry, that plumed minister, envisaged banning the beards of the elder brothers. From an egalitarian point of viewthis is fair: if one forces girls to show their hair, why not force boys to cut their beards? From the moment that hairiness becomes an affair of state . . . The union benefit would not have been negligible: a whole new hierarchy, the School Barbers, hidden in classes, shaving cream always at the ready. The unveiling of girls promises nothing as Juicy. The Unveilers? The Undressers? The Strip-Teasers' Union? No. Quite impossible. Pity.

23. We maintain the following, quite curious thing: that the law on the headscarf is a pure capitalist law. It prescribes that femininity be exhibited. In other words, that the circulation of the feminine body necessarily comply with the market paradigm. It forbids on this matter - and with adolescents, the sensitive plate of the whole subJective universe - all holding back

24. For some time, the declarations and films of a well-known director have manifested a real hatred of eroticism, a ferocious sexual indifference, an undertaker puritanism. All that camou- flaged, as it must be these days, by steamy provocation. Officiating against the headscarf, this director basically says: 'So, we will make the ear lobe into a newerogenous zone!' And why not,  dear director of sex? The creation or recreation of an erogenous zone; finally, some good news for the eroto-maniacs that we are!

25. Everywhere you hear it said that the 'veil' is the intolerable symbol of control of feminine sexuality. Is it that you imagine feminine sexuality is not controlled in our day and age, in our societies? Such naivety would have really made Foucault laugh. Never has feminine sexuality been scrutinized with such meticu- lousness, had so much expert advice thrust on it, been subJect to such fine discriminating between its good and bad uses. EnJoyment has become a sinister obligation. The universal exhibition of supposedly exciting bits is a duty more rigid than Kant's moral imperative. Besides, Lacan some time ago established the fact that, between the 'EnJoy yourselves, women!' of our gossip rags and the imperative 'Do not enJoy!' of our great-grandmothers, there is a strict isomorphism. Market control is more constant, surer, more massive than patriarchal control ever was. Generalized prostitutional circulation is more rapid and more reliable than difficult familial incarcerations, the mocking of which has, between Greek comedy and Molie're, been cause for laughter for centuries.

26. In the nomadic vision of the world, where one reJoices at the incessant circulation and exchange of bodies, it is clear that a coin can think itself the freest thing in the world: it is what circulates the most.

27. The mother and the whore. Certain countries have made reactionary laws in favour of the mother and against the whore; in others, progressive laws have been made in favour of the whore and against the mother. However, it is the alternative between the two that must be reJected.

28. Not however by the 'neither . . . nor . . .,' which only ever perpetuates on neutral ground (i.e. in the centre, as with Franc,ois Bayrou?) what it professes to contest. Saying 'neither mother, nor whore' is simply pathetic. As is 'neither whore, nor submissive', which is quite absurd: is not a 'whore' generally submissive, and aren't they Just? In France in the past, they used to be called les respectueuses (the respectful). The public submissives, all in all. As for the 'submissives' themselves, they are perhaps only private whores. 

29. It always comes down to this: the enemy of thought today is property. It is commerce, and such things as souls, but not faith. What should rather be said is that (political) faith is what is lacking the most. The 'rise of religious fundamentalism' is only the mirror in which sated Westerners consider with dread the effects of the devastation of minds that they've presided over. And, in particular, effects such as the ruining of political thought, which Westerners have attempted to organize everywhere, either under cover of insignificant democracies or with large reinforcements of huma- nitarian paratroopers. Under such conditions, secularism, profes- sing to be at the service of different forms of knowledge, is but a scholarly rule by which to respect the competition, undertake training according to Western norms, and be hostile to every conviction. It is the school for consumer cool, soft business, free ownership and disillusioned voters.

30. Since the death of God, religions have become so incapacitated that, instead of trying to wipe each other out, as they had always done in obedience to their respective gods (who were all the more enraged when they were transcendentally the same), they have had to undertake to help each other out. The archbishop does not like it when the mosque is titillated. The imam, the pastor and the priest hold melancholic consultations. Even the rabbi and the pope get involved with one another. Much more than the war of religions and civilizations - that phantasmagoria for dissimulating plots of power and petrodollars - I believe in the International of moribund  creeds.

31. Hence - obviously anti-Muslim - the law on headscarves bothers all the deputies of the right who owe a part of their prebends to the Catholic voters of the provinces profondes. To throw off the scent, the deputies made up the story that it was necessary to forbid ostentatious signs . . . of politics! Well, honestly! Are there any? Can you believe that there'll be, even in the depths of the darkest villages, even in the terrifying suburbs, a sweeping seizure of hammers and sickles? Of ostentatious Stalins, of headscarves bearing the likeness of the Great Helmsman? I do not believe that such spectacles are generally to be seen during the lunch break. I heartily regret it, but that's the way it is. I myself sometimes went to give my large public seminars with badges, sometimes of the great Lenin, sometimes of my dear Mao. And, well, nobody remarked upon it!

32. One will never go into enough raptures over the trajectory of this singular feminism, which, from its quest to free women, has come to maintain today that this 'freedom' is so obligatory that it requires the expulsion of girls (and not a single boy!) solely due to their clothing  accessories. Bewildering!

33. All the societal Jargon about 'communities', and the combat, as metaphysical as it is furious, of the 'Republic' against 'communitarianisms' - all of that is utter nonsense. Let people live as they wish, or can, eat what they are used to eating, wear turbans, dresses, headscarves, miniskirts, or tap-dancing shoes; let them prostrate themselves whenever they like before worn-out gods, have themselves photographed bowing and scraping, or speak colourful Jargons. Not having the least universal significance, these kinds of 'differences' neither hinder thought, nor support it. So there is no reason either to respect or vilify them. That the 'Other' lives somewhat differently - as amateurs of discreet theology and portable morality like saying after Levinas - is not an observation that costs much effort.

34. At the very most, the diversity of customs and beliefs is a surviving testimony of the diversity of the human animal, some- thing that draws our attention in the same way that blue parrots or whales do, because the multiform force of life intrigues and charms us.

35. As for the fact that human animals group together according to their origins, this is a natural and inevitable consequence of the - most often miserable - conditions of their arrival (in France). Only a cousin or a village compatriot can, nolens volens, welcome you at the hostel at Saint-Ouen-l'Aumône. That Chinese go where other Chinese already are is a point that one would be obtuse to be offended by, unless we are to return to the directives of the French Communist Party of 30 years ago: they demanded an equal distribution of the burden of immigrants among all the communes in the suburbs, that is, in communes of the left and of the right. 'Arabs', said these proletarian and internationalist comrades in sum. 'They are sending all the Arabs into our councils!'

36. Containing communitarianism and watching over the assimilation of Muslims today necessitates going further than the PCF previously dared. Let's demand that, in each large urban conglomeration, there are at most two Moroccan families, only one of them numerous, a sole moderate Malian family, a Turk bachelor, and a half-Tamil.

37. The only problem concerning these 'cultural differences' and these 'communities' is certainly not their social existence, habitat, work, family life, or school. It's that their names are vain as soon as what is in question is a truth, be it artistic, scientific, amorous, or, especially, political. That one's life as a human animal is forged from particularities, well, such is the law of things. When the categories of this particularity profess to be universal, thereby taking upon themselves the seriousness of the subject, then things regularly become disastrous. What matters is the separation of predicates. I can do mathematics in yellow underwear, and I can actively pursue a politics subtracted from  electoral 'democracy' with rasta dreadlocks. This does not mean that the theorem is yellow (or not yellow) any more than it says that the directive under which we convene is dreadlocked. Nor, for that matter, does it lack dreadlocks.

38. Conversely: a truth, political or otherwise, recognizes itself in that fact that the principle of which it is a particular instance does not, as far as the principle is concerned, have anything particular about it. It is something that holds absolutely for whomever enters into the situation about which this instance is stated. This is how political militants, or those who demonstrate a theorem, or dream up a play, or live the enchantment of a love, all create singular forms of thinking, forms of thinking that, from entirely disparate corporeal and mental supports, they can all share. Neither do sexual, linguistic, religious, psychological, or ethnic particularities enter as such into a truth process; nor do they present an obstacle to it. Before Saint-Just took it up, Saint Paul had already said it: when a truth is in question, particularity doesn't matter.

39. That school is said to be so threatened by a particularity that is as insignificant as a fewgirls' headscarves leads to the suspicion that what is in question here is not a truth but mere opinions, low and conservative ones at that. Have we not seen politicians and intellectuals declaring that, above all, school is there to 'educate citizens'? Gloomy programme. Nowadays, the 'citizen' is a bitter little hedonist, clinging to a political system from which every semblance of truth is foreclosed.

40. Might we not be preoccupied, in low and high places, by the fact that quite a number of girls of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian origin, their chignons tightly wound, austere demea- nours, and doggedly at work, have become, with a few Chinese, who are no less bound to the familial universe, formidable heads of the class? Nowadays, it takes a lot of selflessness to be one. It could well be, then, that Chirac  the Soviet's  law  winds  up  blatantly expelling some excellent students.

41. 'Enjoy  unfettered.' This 1968 stupidity never pushed knowledge forward at full steam. A certain dose of voluntary asceticism, the basic reasons for which we know thanks to Freud, is no stranger to the proximity between teaching and at least bare fragments of effective truths. So much so that a headscarf may end up being useful. When patriotism, that hard alcohol of apprentice- ship, is altogether lacking, any idealism, even cheap, is welcome. At least, that is, for those who think that schooling has little to do with 'training'  consumer-citizens.

42. Anti-headscarf maxims: 'School will perish before my secularity'; 'better a bare-headed illiterate than a headscarver of genius.'

43. In point of truth, the headscarf law expresses only one thing: fear. Westerners in general, and the French in particular, are no more than a bunch of shivering cowards. What are they afraid of? Barbarians, as usual. Barbarians both at home, the 'suburban youths', and abroad, the 'Islamic terrorists'. Why are they afraid? Because they are guilty, but claim to be innocent. Guilty from the 1980s onward of having renounced and tried to dismantle every politics of emancipation, every revolutionary form of reason, every true assertion of something other than what is. Guilty of clinging to their miserable privileges. Guilty of being no more than grown-up kids who play with their many purchases. Yes, indeed, 'after a long childhood, they have been made to growup'. They are thus afraid of whatever is a little less old than they are, such as, for example, a stubborn young lady.

44. But most of all, Westerners in general, and the French in particular, are afraid of death. They can no longer even imagine that an idea is something worth taking some risks for. 'Zero deaths' is their most important desire. Well, they see millions of people throughout the world who have no reason to be afraid of death. And among them, many die for an idea nearly every day. For the 'civilized', that is a source of intimate terror.

45. I know that the ideas for which one is ready to die today are generally not worth much. Convinced that all gods withdrew long ago, it grieves me to see young men and women blowing their bodies to bits in horrendous massacres under the funereal invoca- tion of something that has not existed for some while. I know, in addition, that those fearsome 'martyrs' are instrumentalized by conspirators barely distinguishable from the enemies they profess to be fighting. It cannot be repeated often enough how Bin Laden is a creature of the American secret services. I am not naive enough to believe in the purity, nor in the greatness, nor in any purported effectiveness of these suicide killings.

46. But I do say that the atrocious price being paid is above all that of the meticulous destruction of all forms of political rationality by Western hegemons, an undertaking rendered practicable, notably in France, by an abundance of intellectual and working-class complicity. You wanted fiercely to liquidate even the memory of the idea of revolution? You wanted to uproot every usage, even allegorical ones, of the word 'worker'? Then don't complain about the result. Grit your teeth and kill the poor. Or have them killed by your American friends.

47. We have the wars we deserve. In this world numbed by fear, big bandits mercilessly bombard countries drained of blood. Medium bandits practise the targeted  assassination of whoever displeases them. Small bandits make laws against headscarves.

48. They'll say it's less serious. Yes, of course. It's certainly not so bad. Before the Court of History, we will plead attenuating circumstances: 'As a hairstyling specialist, he only played a small role in the affair.'

49. Feeling better?