TV UK, 31 March

The French headscarves ban: you couldn't make it up.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

This World: The Headmaster and the Headscarves (BBC2 on Tuesday) was a brilliant satire on the French ban on headscarves, and other ‘ostentatious’ religious ornamentation, in public schools. Unfortunately for the Muslim schoolgirls involved, and for France in general, it was also entirely non-fiction.

I say entirely – in fact the actor who dubbed the voice of the headmaster perhaps made him seen funnier than he might otherwise have seemed, but it would be hard to depict a man standing at the school gates demanding to see girls’ ears and foreheads (‘No, I want to see your whole forehead’) without admitting a certain amount of hilarity. By focusing on the enforcement of the edict at one Parisian high school, the programme exposed the absurdity of the law, rather than delving into the political and cultural situation that gave rise to it.

Occasional glimpses into that context illustrated the intellectual poverty of the debate, both at a public meeting at the school and in interviews with the various protagonists. A few teachers were militant secularists, who bizarrely defined that creed as the institutionalised inability to tell by looking what religion someone is. The more feminist argument against ‘le voil’ fell flat when it became clear that many of the girls’ families were urging them to bare their heads.

The Muslim girls were supported by an earnest young philosophy teacher whose efforts to come up with a compromise recalled alchemy rather than philosophy. The girls themselves veered between defending their individual right to self-expression and explaining the wearing of the headscarf as a duty to God, neither of which made any impression on the embattled headmaster. What became clear in this unfortunate comedy is that the headscarf ban is not only not the expression of an agreed national ideology, but nor does it even express an outlook that is coherent in its own terms (unless that is an obsession with foreheads).

In Fingersmith, meanwhile, it is the hands that cause excitement (BBC1, Sundays at 9pm). The BBC’s second adaptation from Sarah Waters’ oeuvre of lesbian Victoriana boasts an elaborate plot involving a girl brought up as a secretary by her sinister uncle, who insists that she wear white gloves in order to work in his very specialist library. A ruthless conman and his more sympathetic accomplice are about to turn her life upside down. In contrast to the state-enforced exposure of French schoolgirls’ ears, however, the removal of the gloves in the first episode of Fingersmith had the more traditional connotation of liberation and transgression of social mores.

Having said that, Fingersmith is less self-consciously racy than Tipping the Velvet (1). The two leads Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy are less obvious, if I can say that, than the actresses in Tipping the Velvet, but both are wonderfully expressive, bringing their extraordinary characters convincingly to life. Fingersmith has the authentic feel of a period adaptation, and the lesbian theme doesn’t feel forced. Indeed, the fact that lesbianism was not an ‘issue’ in Victorian Britain frees the drama of the burden of being ‘issue-based’. Instead, we simply follow the characters as they feel their way through the remarkable plot.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) TV UK, 4 October 2002

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Topics Culture


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