Book Review: “Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves”

Nura S.

This summer, we all witnessed the images of policeman harassing Muslim women on beaches in Cannes, ordering them to take off their modest swimsuit, the Burkini. We were all appalled and outraged by the fact that a secular society, one of which the founding principles is supposedly libertecan disregard the basic right of an individual to wear what they choose. While the popular discourse focuses on the rising xenophobia and Islamaphobia in the West as the possible sources of discrimination against Muslims in France, the book Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves sheds a light onto the political ideals of the country, that is embedded in its political history.

I started reading Why the French Don’t like Headscarves by John Bowen in 2014. I picked up this book at a time where the issue of hijab in Turkey, where I live, was improving. Women in headscarves in Turkey were not allowed to work in public institutions and attend to schools, but as of 2013 can now work in public institutions, although they cannot be judges or serve in the military. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement for a country, which has a history of laicite, the French form of secularism, of almost 91 years. The Turkish Republic is not just secular, but more specifically, laique by constitution.

Secularism is the Anglo-Saxon concept of the separation of religion and the state affairs, whereas laicite, the French version, involves the control of religion by the state and the erasure of religion from the public sphere. I always wondered what led to the development of laicite in France, Turkey’s role model. This book gives a historical account of the confrontation between Islam and laicite in France punctuated by anecdotes and interviews.

In 2004, the law banning the hijab in schools passed in France. Muslim women who donned headscarves had been present in France since the beginning with 1960’s when Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian immigrant workers settled with their families. However, it became a topic of controversy in 1989, following the terrorist attack in Paris attributed to Algerians. Needless to say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks heated the controversy, adding to the anti-Muslim sentiment in the public.

Prior to 2004, the students entering the classrooms wearing hijab, and requesting not to attend co-ed swimming classes invoked anxiety by allegedly violating the religion-neutral atmosphere in the classroom. Either the school administration and the student negotiated, or the student was expelled from the school. One who is not familiar with the laique political culture might have trouble understanding how students outfit causes anxiety on the administration level.


One explanation the book offers, is that the reaction to the headscarf stems from the social anxieties that can be traced back to French Revolution. After the Revolution, religion was pushed into the private sphere; in the public sphere everyone is first and foremost a citizen. Religion was perceived as a threat against the uniformity of the citizenry, following the way in which religion had previously been used to prop up the elite. Creating a religion neutral public sphere was French governments’ way of ensuring individuals’ liberties against a religion oppression that might occur. The goal of creating a uniform citizenry might be jarring, however these are the postulates upon which modern French society was found. So much so that, as it is quoted in the book, more than two centuries after the revolution, the renowned French political figure Nicholas Sarkozy resonated the revolutionary ideals by stating: “freedom is the rule in the private sphere; republican conformity is the rule in the public sphere”(p.157).

Bowen explains the link French intellectuals create between headscarf and the social problems under three categories: communalism, Islamism and sexism. Of the three, communalism and Islamism are the most interest of me since I am familiar with the worldwide Islamophobic media that portrays Islam as inherently sexist and oppressor of women. Communalism is the closing in of ethnic communities refusing integration to the country they live in. According to the book, for the majority of French people, headscarves do not belong to the indigenous culture, and so are a symbol of refusal to integrate in France. One cannot help but wonder if there is only one strict definition of being French and if there is, could this definition be ever revisited?

What is happening in France now is a confrontation of national legacies and concepts such as pluralism and the freedom of religion, that many Western democracies take as their core values. The French ideal of creating a homogenous citizenry renders a pluralistic society impossible. The state dictating to an individual how to identify himself or herself, is a direct intervention of personal freedoms. However, it should not be forgotten that the state has the public support on this issue. This book is a good read that to help understand how the historical political processes of French Revolution and the long fought battle with Church for the pursuit of liberties, shapes the French public’s attitude towards religion and religious symbol today.

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