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Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
John R. Bowen
Princeton University Press, 2008
304 pp., 32.00

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The Politics of the Veil (The Public Square)
The Politics of the Veil (The Public Square)
Joan Wallach Scott
Princeton University Press, 2007
224 pp., 45.00

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Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Covering Up

What to learn from the French debate over headscarves.

In late 2003, Al-Jazeera anchorwoman Khadija Bin Qinna caused a stir among viewers when she appeared on-air wearing a brightly colored headscarf. The vast majority of Al-Jazeera anchorwomen and female reporters do not wear any head-covering, and previously Bin Qinna had been no different. In addressing public speculation on the matter, the Algerian newscaster later explained that, after a three-year struggle with "the devil," she had been convinced of the necessity of donning the hijab by a guest on the station's weekly Islamic program, Sharia and Life.

It is precisely this kind of rhetoric that troubles many non-Muslims. While most Muslim women who do not wear the headscarf themselves but defend those who do emphasize that the matter is one of personal choice, Muslim women who decide to conceal their hair (and more) tend overwhelmingly to cite divine mandate as their motivation. This would appear to leave uncovered Muslim women as dupes who have succumbed to the devil's wily charms.

Whatever the case may be, it is one of many issues social anthropologist John Bowen does not sufficiently probe in his study of the March 2004 law banning students from wearing "conspicuous" religious signs—including Islamic headscarves, large crosses, Jewish kippas, and Sikh turbans—in French public schools. Although the author recounts instances "when, after I have talked about why and how the law came to be passed, people are still unsure what I think," it would be wishful thinking to believe that this applies to the book itself; it is clear throughout that Bowen opposes the law. Fortunately, his arguments remain informed even when not wholly convincing, and his analysis of the headscarf affair simultaneously illumines the larger social context. Indeed, in many respects Why The French Don't Like Headscarves offers a detailed and insightful study of the overall place of Islam in the French Republic, and of the increasing discord between religious Muslims and the avowedly secular state they call home.

Not so another recent book on the subject, The Politics of the Veil, by sociologist Joan Wallach Scott, who, despite her erudition, makes the tendentious claim that "the veil in French republican discourse is understood in racist terms." Scott writes: "French universalism insists that sameness is the basis for equality"; yet "[t]he requirement of sameness underwrites and perpetuates racism." Scott fails to recognize that, though the French Republican conception of national identity is indeed narrow, the sameness required is neither religious nor racial, but simply the privatization of religious belief and the non-politicization of ethnicity on the part of all French citizens.

Whereas Bowen tends to view those French politicians and intellectuals who supported the law as having been inspired by the naïve belief that it would curb Islamic radicalism, Scott is convinced that something far more sinister is at play. Though the law directly affects only the small minority of Muslim schoolgirls who wear the headscarf, Scott improbably claims that it is directed against all Muslims, qua Muslims: "By outlawing the headscarf, the state declared those who espoused Islam, in whatever form, to be literally foreigners to the French way of life."

Perhaps because Scott's book is "not about French Muslims, but about the dominant French view of them," she does not bother to investigate the interplay between French Muslims' self-perception and the aforementioned dominant French view of Islam, or the manner in which the former may have influenced the latter. For example, isn't it possible that Western perceptions of a one-size-fits-all Islam—inaccurate, but not racist—take their cue from an outward insistence on the part of many Muslims that Islam is one and indivisible, and that Muslims the world over belong to a single umma, or nation?

For his part, Bowen does discuss Muslims' perceptions of self but—like Scott—pays scant attention to doctrinal injunctions. On the issue of head and body coverings, for example, the Qur'an merits only a cursory mention, while the Hadith (the codification of the words and deeds of the Muslim prophet Muhammad) is completely ignored. The author's intention here is to debunk preconceived notions concerning a supposed overarching ideology animating all headscarf-wearing girls. Bowen emphasizes the multiplicity of reasons motivating young Muslim women to cover their hair, and consequently the foolishness of considering the headscarf representative of a single socio-political orientation.

This is an important point—reductive explanations should always be avoided—but it ignores the conspicuous fact that most girls explicitly cite Islam as their motivation for wearing the headscarf. Moreover, varied motivations can nevertheless produce a cumulative effect. For example, many people hang crosses around their necks not out of any genuine sense of faith but owing to tradition, habit, or even superstition; this does not change the fact that the cross remains a symbol of Christianity. Indeed, however varied the reasons for wearing the cross, together they magnify the public visibility of Christianity. Similarly, tradition and familial pressure—neither of which by Bowen's own account plays a major role—fail to dilute the Islamic symbolism of the headscarf. The latter's visibility in public schools may not be evidence of threatening "communalism, Islamism, and sexism," but simply of the increased presence of Islam in a sphere long regarded as secular and religion-neutral territory.

Bowen also fails to interrogate arguments in defense of the headscarf. For example, in discussing "modesty" as one factor impelling Muslim women and girls to cover up, he neglects to mention a popular notion underlying this idea. Muslim thinkers often portray women as intrinsic sex objects, for the simple reason that men cannot help but be sexually aroused by the mere sight of woman. For this reason, a woman must cover herself, interpretations varying as to whether part or all of her body should be obscured from view. When a woman does not take this precaution, she knowingly invites the lecherous and even violent actions of hopelessly agitated men who cannot be considered responsible for their conduct. For a country committed to equality of men and women, reinforcing such a peculiar concept of modesty would seem absurd.

There are other irritants as well. Bowen refers to the horrendous practice of female genital mutilation as "excision," an inaccurate euphemism that fails to indicate the extent of the violence involved. He cites French Muslim thinker Mohammed Arkoun as "the only Muslim" on the 19-member commission that recommended the law against religious signs even as he refers to fellow members Hanifa Chérifi and Gaye Petek. The former is of Algerian and the latter of Turkish origin; both appear to be Muslim, albeit non-observant. Yet few other mistakes can be found, and in general the author is quite meticulous, especially when discussing various facets of the ideology upon which modern France is based.

French Republicanism, as it is called, derives much of its inspiration from The Social Contract and other writings of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who tended to emphasize social harmony over individual rights. Indeed, French Republicanism has always included a totalitarian strain, at various times banning anything and everything—from proselytism to professional guilds and regional languages—that smacks of social specificity, all in the name of combating "communalism." This is in large part a legacy of the state's struggle against the Catholic Church, which historically interfered in virtually every aspect of citizens' lives. In a sense, we are back to Hannah Arendt's observation that any kind of total revolution will itself become totalitarian.

To be sure, the headscarf affair was overblown; "91 percent of all teachers in France had never even encountered a student in a headscarf at their current school." In this respect, Bowen demonstrates the decisive role of the media, which were generally arrayed against the headscarf. (Interestingly, however, the courts were not; before the law was passed, girls who could prove that they had been expelled from school for no reason other than wearing the headscarf almost always won their cases.) Bowen and Scott both point up what is arguably the law's chief weakness. The commission's report, Scott observes, "took integration to be a prerequisite for education, rather than its outcome." Indeed, the question of how to integrate students who are being expelled has no easy answer.

It is also imperative to bear in mind that other Islam-related issues remain unresolved. Various fears led to a law that will certainly reclaim public schools as secular territory but will do little to combat larger anti-social tendencies like rising "communalism, Islamism, and sexism." Still, it would be incorrect to think that such issues are being ignored. Indeed, the state has sought to balance "a hard-line position on scarves with a willingness to control Islam by aiding it." The idea is that, were the state to nurture an Islam de France, French Muslims could more easily be encouraged to assimilate, and would no longer have to rely on foreign funding for mosque construction, and foreign imams for religious instruction.

Until recently, such a move was deemed unacceptable according to the same two principles often cited as justification for a law banning headscarves from public school classrooms. Bowen explores the ambiguity of the terms laïcité, loosely translated as secularism, and "public space," from which religious and communal signs are banned. (For all the confusion involved, the March 2004 law on religious signs should, if anything, further clarify the meaning of such terms.) He adds that Catholicism remains favored by the state in many ways, while Islamic institutions do not even receive the benefits accorded their Protestant and Jewish counterparts.

This is changing, however, with the recent creation of an umbrella Muslim organization to serve as interlocutor between the state and its Muslim citizens. Of course, such an approach carries its own dangers. Perhaps the biggest fear is that French Muslims, already neglected in terms of housing and employment by successive governments, will be completely abandoned by an indifferent state to the tender mercies of an Islamic body eager to assert control over its flock. In other words, French Muslims would become akin to non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire, who were forced to submit to their respective sects' internal laws. Indeed, the worst-case scenario is that Muslim citizens of France end up being subjected to "soft" sharia by some official Islamic body charged with overseeing the community's affairs.

This would appear unlikely. As Bowen suggests, the borderline-totalitarian aspect of French Republicanism has its benefits: "If the American insistence on freedom of choice assumes the possibility of choosing, and thus sees the matter as a private one, the French emphasis on autonomy and dignity sees it as the state's obligation to take steps to create the conditions for meaningful choice." Perhaps such eternal vigilance on the part of the state will serve to guarantee that concessions to religion do not translate into separate and quasi-legal fiefdoms for various religious communities. French Muslims must retain the right to ignore or contravene Islamic law, and even apostatize altogether from Islam, as is the case with adherents of other religions.

What we see in France today is an explicit recognition of the classroom—the crucible of education—as public space, and an effort to ensure that it remains a secular venue in which students of all faiths come together. Contrary to Scott's argument, which claims that by passing the headscarf law France is actively rejecting Muslims, the French state is trying to include Muslims in the classroom while keeping Islam at bay. The French state cannot reinterpret Islam so that it recognizes a distinction between public and private, but it can certainly make Muslim citizens of France recognize this distinction. Ultimately, the issue of whether Islam can in fact be interpreted in such a manner as to allow for the privatization of religion is mooted by the realization that French law supersedes Islamic sharia, and that Muslims in France—like all French citizens—must give precedence to national allegiance.

Crucial, too, is the fact that the headscarf law applies only to primary and secondary (public) schools, not to universities. The rationale behind this is that students at primary and secondary schools are minors, whereas those at universities are adults able to make informed decisions concerning religious adherence. (Think of Anabaptist teachings on the inadmissibility of baptism for those who have not reached the "age of accountability.") And the approach is working; Scott writes that "[t]he law has been in effect since 2004, and, it seems, most Muslims have accommodated to the rules" (though for her this is not a happy outcome). In a small way Muslims—especially religious Muslim girls—are being further integrated into French society. This is essential for achieving equality and social harmony in France.

In a larger context, of course, long-held assumptions about the demise of religion are consistently being called into question by the political ambition of compact and growing religious communities, be they organized evangelicals in the United States, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, Hindutva activists in India, or increasingly assertive Muslim minorities across Europe. In addition to political tension with the governing power, such groups often experience social friction with religious and non-religious rivals. The secular state remains the only arena where a range of these ideological factions can coexist, so long as none is invested with any coercive legal power, and citizens continue to be governed by a single secular code of law. This would seem to be the greatest legacy of Enlightenment France to its 21st-century self—and to a globalized world.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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