Muslim headscarves in France and army uniforms in Israel: A comparative study of citizenship as mask

Leora Bilsky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


On 15 March 2004 the French government passed a law that banned the wearing of 'conspicuous signs' of religious affiliation in public schools. The ban was the result of an ongoing controversy in France about the admissibility of the hijab worn by Muslim schoolgirls. On 8 November 2007 Professor Nizar Hassan, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, asked a Jewish student of his, who came to class wearing his army uniform, to refrain from wearing it to his classes in the future. Following the incident a public storm erupted in which high-ranking officers in the Israeli army participated. Considering these two very different controversies involving individuals belonging to minority groups can provide a new perspective on current debates about citizenship and difference. It can shift the focus of the investigation from the Islamic Other as an object of enquiry to the interaction between the state and the individual as participants in a complex symbolic conversation. The two controversies should be read against the background of two contrasting conceptions of the public sphere and its relations to equality: while the French republic insists on creating a neutral public sphere as a pre-condition for equality, in Israel the possibility of equality is connected to guaranteeing a separation between the public and the private sphere. Comparing the two controversies, Bilsky considers one recurrent theme that dominated them both, the accusation of hypocrisy, and she analyses the ways in which this accusation distorted the public debate. She argues that the focus on hypocrisy reveals an important aspect of citizenship that was misinterpreted in both cases, namely, 'citizenship as mask'. Without a proper understanding of the role of masks in democratic citizenship, we witness the transformation of a debate about equality and plurality into a competition for the exposing of hypocrites. Bilsky returns to Hannah Arendt's reflections on citizenship as a way to understand the limits of a theory of equality based on sameness, and uses the two controversies to demonstrate the need to develop a theory of citizenship that can better respond to both equality and plurality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-311
Number of pages25
JournalPatterns of Prejudice
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2009


  • Citizenship
  • Equality
  • France
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Hijab
  • Hypocrisy
  • Israel
  • Mask
  • Nizar Hassan
  • Plurality


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