M. Taufiqurrahman , The Jakarta Post , DeKalb, Illinois | Sun, 04/06/2008 10:46 AM | Bookmark
Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
John R. Bowen
Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2007
In December 2004, the French government promulgated a law that soon caused uproar across the country and in other parts of the world.
After months of discussion and deliberation, the government of President Jacques Chirac issued a regulation that would ban the display of excessive religious symbols in public space.
While the new regulations would ban people from wearing Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves, the biggest outcry came from the Muslim community who felt they were targeted by the new policy.
Indeed, the French Muslim community grievance was justified because the new regulation was in fact an outgrowth of controversy surrounding whether or not public schools should expel female Muslim students who wore headscarves during class.
The controversy began in September 1989, when three Arab-French girls showed up for their first day at middle school wearing Islamic dress, including headscarves.
The students agreed to remove their headscarves in class, but later broke the deal and this led to a series of high-profile negotiations (involving national Muslim organizations) to return them to class.
Since that time, hundreds of female Muslim students were expelled from schools, until the Chirac government produced the law it hoped would resolve the headscarf issue once and for all.
This thorny issue is the subject of a new book by John R. Bowen, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and the Public Space, which in spite of its provocative title is a sober contemplation of why the French government decided to ban headscarves. On a higher theoretical plane, Bowen also tackles the issue of the relationship between state and religion.
Anthropologist Bowen takes a great deal of care to trace the genealogy of the French government's decision to ban the headscarf from public space -- something that would be unthinkable in countries like Great Britain or the United States as both have had successful experience managing minority religions.
The ban on headscarves appears to make little sense because both Muslim and Catholic nuns have worn headscarves in France for decades, and no problems ever arose because of them.
While the impetus for banning headscarves comes from contemporary affairs -- a fear of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iranian revolution and the 9/11 terrorist attack -- Bowen argues that the conundrum has, in fact, nothing to do with the foundation of modern statehood in France.
Supporters of the new law argue that wearing headscarves in public is a contradiction of the laicite, the idea of a separation between religion and state, an underlying principle of the modern France and an idea that dates back to the French Revolution.
Bloody wars between Catholic and Protestant Huguenots left a bitter memory and the post-Revolution government decided to simply do away with religion.
"The relations between the state and religions in France are a source of frequent conflicts and temporary resolutions, but mostly end up with the state controlling religions, hence upholding the principle of laicite or secularism," Bowen writes.
The latest ban on religious symbols is a manifestation of another state effort to control religions, he says.
The principle of laicite itself, however, was never set out clearly. The word laicite does not even appear in the very law (of 1905) that is celebrated as its embodiment.
Its legal status rests on its inclusion in a key phrase in the 1946 Constitution: Le France est une Republique indivisible, laique, democratique, et sociale (France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic).
There are no boundaries as to what could be classified as religious or secular or what constitutes both. The problem of religious signs is compounded by the lack of definite boundaries between public and private. Does the wearing of headscarves or the Jewish skullcap on the street, for example, constitute a violation of laicite?
At one point, Bowen presents an anecdotal possibility that Jewish female women could wear headscarves, Muslims wear crosses or Catholics wear Sikh turbans and would be exempt from the new law, even if they displayed these religious symbols publicly.
In the absence of rigid definitions for laicite in its connection with the display of religious symbols, the French government assembled a commission of experts to make recommendations on what to do about the headscarf affair.
The Stasi Commission, named after its chairman Bernard Stasi, consists of renowned public figures including Islamic philosopher Mohammed Arkoun, sociologist Alain Tourraine, leftist thinker-cum-activist Regis Debray and former Maoist Andre Glucksmann.
Most of the commission members initially ridiculed the idea of a commission formed to toil over headscarves and indeed some members openly said the matter was too trivial. Predictably, when the commission wrapped up its work, it came up with a grandiose proposal for the government to resolve France's minority groups' long-standing socio-economic problems.
The commission points to the fact that the French government failed to integrate its Muslim minority whose members are descendants of immigrants from Maghribi countries, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Most of the immigrant community still lives in ghetto-like neighborhoods, and in seclusion of their own confine which has given rise to religious-related problems.
But the French government, due to its proclivity for regulation, simply followed up the regulation by issuing a law to ban religious symbols.
In his book, Bowen also gives a voice to people who have become the subject of the controversy, headscarf-wearing Muslim young women. This group have long been silenced by the media and the talking heads in any public discussions of the new law. Numerous proceedings in the Stasi Commission only heard one veiled woman speak.
Challenging the conventional line purported by mainstream media about headscarves and veils, as being a symbol of oppression of Muslim women, Bowen proposes that wearing headscarves is the assumption of a post-colonial identity among some French women of Arab origin.
After giving a voice to headscarf-wearing women, Bowen makes a a broad attack on the French feminist movement. He points to the bankruptcy of the feminist movement as indicated by their stance on the headscarf debate.
Disgust over what they perceived as willingness among some Muslim women to submit themselves to male domination (in the act of wearing headscarves), feminist activists even physically attacked headscarf-wearing women who took part in a Paris rally to support the new law on religious signs.
In spite of its scholarly nature, Bowen's book is an engrossing read as Bowen inserts vignettes of real-life experiences about the cumbersome consequences of the law.
Bowen notes, for example, before any single Muslim women were prosecuted under the new law, there had already been 10 Sikh men who had a brush with the law for wearing turbans to work.
Bowen's book shows us a difficult problem of whether the state should adopt an assimilationist strategy -- that immigrants should abandon native cultures and adopt the reference culture -- or take a differentialist approach, "letting the thousand flowers bloom", allowing people of different cultures to live according to their original culture in peaceful co-existence.
The French government decided to take the first path and they now face a dire consequence in the form of a string of recent riots which recently shook the country.
The reviewer is a graduate student at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Illinois.