Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Alyson Cole

Subject Categories

Political Science


Liberal political theorists often attempt to claim that a set of universal ideals can ensure equal agency and freedom for all. This paper makes use of the case study of the French approach to Muslim headscarves as a case study for exploring the limitations of this philosophy. In particular, this paper examines the ways in which liberalism conceptualizes universal ideals, particularly in the case of the headscarves in France. It then explores two ways in which the French headscarf ban exposes weaknesses in liberalism's conceptualization of identity and agency: rather than being universal, liberalism has very particular conceptions of 1) what constitutes agency for women and 2) the relationship between the role of religion in a person's life and his or her autonomy. This paper explores the ways in which the case study of the French headscarf ban exposes those two sets of particular assumptions, and then looks at two very different ways that political actors and theorists have attempted to resolve the tensions in liberal political thought exposed by the headscarf ban: 1) a rejection of any attempts at universalism in favor of a forthright claim that membership in the French republic demands membership in traditional French culture, and 2) conversely, an attempt to delineate a distinction between group and individual rights. The first approach resolves the tension in liberal theory only in the sense that it rejects some of liberalism's basic premises; the second approach, when applied to the case of the French headscarf ban, also falls short.