Gender Studies

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space

John R. Bowen, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 290 pages.

Western anthropologists are typically concerned with interpreting the non-western world’s unfamiliar cultures for western audiences. The French law banning the hijab from public schools presents itself as just as baffling as any non-western custom. Thus, it is fully understandable that it would take an American anthropologist to interpret this event, especially for those in Anglo-Saxon cultures, where in spite of Islamophobia and discrimination against the hijab, concepts of religious tolerance and multiculturalism have generally translated into legal protections for women  and girls who wish to wear it in public spaces. So with a catchy title designed to appeal to this widespread bafflement, the author seeks to explain the intellectual underpinnings and political processes that led to this banning of “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools on March 15, 2004.

Bowen, whose earlier work looked at religion and social change in Indonesia, focuses on the public deliberations about the issue of the hijab as well as on wider issues related to Muslim integration in France. He interviews politicians, bureaucrats, academics, journalists, public intellectuals, Muslim leaders, Muslim women, and (importantly, since it was a missing dimension, as he points out, in the lead up to the law) Muslim high school girls. He studies public texts and focuses especially on the crucial role played by an often hysterical media in forming and firming up public opinion in support of the law.

Since French discourse about social and public issues usually traces a genealogy back to the Republic’s founding, Bowen starts by taking us through how French political theory conceives of the relationship between the individual, state, religion, and society – French republicanism. This, along with a chapter on the specific relationship between Islam and the state, forms part 1 of the book: “State and Religion in the Long Run.”

Here he lays the foundations of French republicanism as part of his attempt to explain how the French came to embrace such a law, particularly the republican concept of removing specific (e.g., historical, ethnic, and religious) differences among different citizens from the public space as a way to achieve equality, and the sometimes proactive role that the state must play in achieving this. This is seen as the state guarding “neutrality” among its citizens. In this context, a bureaucrat mentions (without embarrassment) that there will “never be Sikh civil servants in France” (p. 14), since the Sikh’s religious headgear contravenes the state’s public role of religious neutrality. Not for the last time does it sometimes feel that, elaborate explanations referencing French political philosophy notwithstanding, the best explanation for “why the French don’t like headscarves” is simply racism.

Part 2, “Publicity and Politics, 1989-2005,” contains three chapters centered around the headscarf. Chapter 1 presents the debates over the meaning of the word veil (Fr. voile). Chapter 2 contains interviews with school girls about the hijab, the history of the problems over the hijab in schools when they first surfaced in 1989 until the lead up to the law, examinations of politicians’ speeches about the law, and the work of the Stasi commission (the commission of experts set up to investigate the issue and recommend solutions). Chapter 3, “Repercussions,” examines the immediate post-law period as the French tried to assess the law’s positive or negative impact.

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