The scarf in social fabric

Why the French Don't Like Headscarves - Human Rights and Religion
March 30, 2007

Can secular Europeans and Muslims get along? asks Malcolm Crook.

When a recent article in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph sparked a nationwide debate on the veil, we were reminded that Islamic dress is an issue for Britain as well as for our European neighbours. The author of the controversial piece - Jack Straw, former Home Secretary and MP for a Blackburn constituency with a substantial Muslim community - had evidently touched a very raw nerve. For the underlying debate, behind the veil as it were, raises some fundamental questions about the cohesion of some increasingly diverse modern societies as people move around the planet on an unprecedented scale. Race and immigration are big concerns for many people, and identity seems to be at odds with integration. The two books here are among the first in English to tackle a striking symptom of this contemporary syndrome.

France has the largest Muslim population of any European state, perhaps 5 million or 6 million, largely the product of its colonial relationship with North Africa. There, the headscarf ( foulard ) has been a bone of contention for almost two decades. The first incident occurred in October 1989, when three Muslim girls were expelled from their secondary school in Creil, some 48km north of Paris. Similar affaires du foulard have sporadically rekindled smouldering disagreement to the point where the Government decided to legislate on the matter, producing the unfortunately named Stasi Law (after its sponsor) in 2004. This banned "ostensible" signs of religious affiliation from French state schools. It was passed almost unanimously in parliament, yet adverse reactions have been limited; the riots of 2005 in the banlieues were mostly devoid of religious content, in essence the product of social deprivation and ethnic discrimination.

John Bowen, an American anthropologist, opens his book on the subject by sketching some of the historical background that has rendered "a small piece of cloth" such an explosive matter in France. Although readers may find this lengthy introduction somewhat heavy-going, especially in a volume aimed at a broad readership (and based on rather too many transcripted conversations), it is nonetheless essential. For in the French republic, in a context of laïcité (best translated as "secularity"), the public expression of religious affiliation is profoundly problematic - all the more so in schools, where republican values have traditionally been inculcated (though ironically there are no school uniforms, and all sorts of modish attire have been permitted). The campaign for laicite erupted violently in the 1880s, when the republic became firmly established at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church, from which the state was separated in 1905. The issue remained a source of tension but, just when the decline of Christian practice seemed to have rendered it innocuous, the establishment of Islam on French soil has reopened the conflict. Republicans are once again battling for secular values, the headscarf perhaps reminiscent of the increasingly rare nun's headgear.

Terminology is important because in France controversy over the headscarf has usually been cast as a dispute over the veil (voile), when in fact only the covering of hair and neck is involved (the hijab), not the complete veiling of the face (the niqab) that disturbed Jack Straw. This confusion reflects considerable uneasiness in dealing with the broader Muslim presence in France. As Bowen rightly suggests in the closing section of his book (having dealt with recourse to legislation in the middle), underlying concerns about the development of separate communities ( communautarisme ), radical Islam and gender discrimination are concealed by the dispute over headscarves. The republic is struggling to assimilate a growing minority who are less willing than Christian or Jewish adherents to accept the compromises that have been struck in the past. Another of the many ironies, however, is that other religious groups have also begun to feel the resulting pinch, including the small community of turban-wearing Sikhs. The discourse employed may also represent a deliberate attempt at escalation by secularists, many of whom appear as intolerant as the religious extremists they detect behind the schoolgirls in the eye of the storm. Exaggerated notions of cultural conflict between East and West and, above all, a misconceived War on Terror have served to deepen the divide. Finally, in a country where female emancipation has been relatively tardy, there are fears that discrimination will masquerade as multiculturalism. French feminists invariably regard the veil as a means of demonstrating that women are inferior to men.

Dominic McGoldrick, while justifiably devoting substantial space to France, which has experienced the greatest problems, breaks new ground not only by providing an eminently useful European survey of the subject but also encompassing aspiring European Union member Turkey and several non-European states besides. As a lawyer, he seeks to apply the concept of human rights to resolve the conundrum, and he makes copious reference to laws, court cases, constitutions and conventions. This might sound dry and unrewarding stuff, but the book is packed with interesting material clearly presented for the lay reader. The author brings to bear a degree of linguistic and legal precision often lacking from the participants' arguments. Although he conducts a country-by-country analysis and recognises complexity, he is always keen to make comparisons and draw general conclusions. These are subsumed into a final chapter on wider perspectives, which return to the pressing question of how people who disagree fundamentally can live together.

Germany, for instance, has adopted a much more pragmatic approach than France, based on the neutrality of the state, with the aim of safeguarding religious freedom, rather than laïcité . This may reflect the long-standing tradition of toleration in a country split between Protestant and Catholic, but it has not been without drawbacks, especially as it becomes evident that Gastarbeiter (or guest workers), mostly of Turkish origin, are not temporary residents but citizens. Turkey itself offers an especially fascinating example, as a Muslim state with a commitment to laicite akin to that of France (although the French Government is least anxious to admit Turkey to the EU), where actions have been brought to break the ban on headscarves. Britain, by contrast, has seen one major court battle relating to Islamic dress in schools, which was eventually dismissed by the House of Lords, though this concerned a demand to wear the jilbab (a long, loose gown covering the whole figure). Arguably the British commitment to multiculturalism, which finds little favour in France, has facilitated an avoidance of controversy, although fears are being expressed that parallel communities have emerged from this approach.

The underlying issues look set to pose continuing problems, especially as evidence suggests that later generations of immigrant descent are taking their Muslim identities rather more seriously than their parents. The headscarf debate may well have proved counterproductive, as media involvement has generated more heat than light. The issue does not conform to standard Left-Right divisions; many rightwingers take as hard a line in defence of secularity as their counterparts, arguably rounding on religion as a surrogate for their failure to tackle globalisation and its discontents. The West has long removed veils, both literally and figuratively, in its pursuit of modernisation, but with Europe again becoming a land of Islam, the challenge is how to reconcile significant cultural differences in a peaceful fashion. Permitting exemptions from generally applicable laws is a vexed matter, but negotiating rather than coercing seems the best prospect for democratic societies that must accommodate far more diversity than they have hitherto experienced.

Malcolm Crook is professor of French history at Keele University.

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

Author - John R. Bowen
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 290
Price - £17.95
ISBN - 0 691 12506 0

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