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

  • ISBN13: 9780691138398
  • Condition: NEW
  • Notes: Brand New from Publisher. No Remainder Mark.

Product Description

The French government’s 2004 decision to ban Islamic headscarves and other religious signs from public schools puzzled many observers, both because it seemed to infringe needlessly on religious freedom, and because it was hailed by many in France as an answer to a surprisingly wide range of social ills, from violence against females in poor suburbs to anti-Semitism. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves explains why headscarves on schoolgirls caused such a furor, and why the furor yielded this law. Making sense of the dramatic debate from his perspective as an American anthropologist in France at the time, John Bowen writes about everyday life and public events while also presenting interviews with officials and intellectuals, and analyzing French television programs and other media.

Bowen argues that the focus on headscarves came from a century-old sensitivity to the public presence of religion in schools, feared links between public expressions of Islamic identity and radical Islam, and a media-driven frenzy that built support for a headscarf ban during 2003-2004. Although the defense of laïcité (secularity) was cited as the law’s major justification, politicians, intellectuals, and the media linked the scarves to more concrete social anxieties–about “communalism,” political Islam, and violence toward women.

Written in engaging, jargon-free prose, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves is the first comprehensive and objective analysis of this subject, in any language, and it speaks to tensions between assimilation and diversity that extend well beyond France’s borders.

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


  1. You will find an excellent review and analysis of the controversial law passed in France in 2004 which banned clothing with clear religious affiliation from being worn in public schools. The creation of this law, which targeted the Islamic headscarf, has raised discussion in France and elsewhere about the definition and limits of “freedom of religion” in the public context.

    How did the policy come to pass in French legislation? How did the particular school incidents escalate to national attention? This book will answer these questions informatively and engagingly. I read this for a class at Northern Arizona University, and from an anthropology undergrad’s perspective, I rank this among the better books I’ve read.

    Rating: 5 / 5

  2. This book eruditely and factually reports on the many sides of this issue and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  3. Three years after the facts, is it still worthwhile to revisit the French government’s decision to ban Islamic headscarves and other religious signs from public schools? Should we not rather just let go, have time heal whatever wounds may have been caused, and move on to something else? If John Bower chose to dedicate a book to that decision and to the deliberations that led to it, it is not just because the law seems strange to outsiders and cannot be easily interpreted starting from a liberal viewpoint. It is, above all, because he felt that “its passage was one of those key moments in a country’s life at which certain anxieties and assumptions come to the surface, when people take stock of who they are and of what kind of social life they wish to have.”

    To be true, the French are adept at staging such debates about themselves. The nation that invented the salons philosophiques and the art of conversation has a passion for probing into its own identity and entertains the belief that all social ills may be amenable to abstract reasoning and enlightened lawmaking. This is not only a matter of belief, but of social organization: the author finds that “French politicians, writers about public affairs, television ‘talking heads’, and philosophers are much more likely to read one another’s work, be related to one another, or indeed be the same person than is the case in most other countries.” These literati tend to base their opinion about social trends on anecdotes and media commentary, not hard data or sociological evidence. In a strange twist of cartesian thinking, they believe that if a theory is refuted by facts, then you have to change the facts, not the theory.

    The theory here is that schools are a sanctuary of republican values, a sacred institution whose mission is to create a universal social morality in the minds of French pupils and to mold them into autonomous, rational and public-minded citizen. Philosophically, this conception is rooted in a certain brand of political philosophy originating with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one that emphasizes general interests and shared values over individual interests and pluralism. Historically, it is associated with the figure of the hussard noir de la Republique, the schoolteacher in rural districts who was the designated agent to turn “peasants into Frenchmen” and have the Catholic church abdicate its control over the minds of primary school pupils. The reality is that state schools in contemporary France have to integrate an increasingly diverse population, notably the children of immigrants from North Africa, and that they cannot really cope with all the social requests that are imposed upon them.

    It is in this context that wearing headscarves in state schools came to be seen as a threat to the central values of the Republic and a challenge to three hard-won battles: the fight to keep religion from controlling young minds, the struggle to forge a common French identity, and the promotion of gender equality in public and private life. The law banning headscarves in schools can therefore be seen as a product of a historical trajectory as well as a political response to the perceived threats of Islamism, communalism and sexism. Explaining that law, as the author does, “requires unpacking a great deal about France, including France’s very particular history of religion and the state, the great hopes placed in the public schools, ideas about citizens and integration (and the challenges posed by Muslims and by Islam to those ideas), the continued weight of the colonial past, the role of television in shaping opinion, and the tendency to think that passing a law will resolve a social problem.” That the author does so without losing a sense of sympathy and understanding for the young girls most directly affected by this measure is a testimony to his humanity and to his skills as a storyteller.
    Rating: 5 / 5


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