Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, by John R. Bowen, is a close look at the context of the Muslim headscarf controversy in France leading up to an outright headscarf ban in schools with the Law of March 15, 2004. (1)

Many Americans and others, I think, are inclined to look upon this law as an infringement on individual rights. But this only gives strength to the claim that context is everything. The French, arguably the first purveyors of the modern notion of human rights, have another way of looking at the controversy.

The central historical event in modern French life is the Revolution of 1789, when the tyranny of the Catholic Church was cast aside along with the tyranny of the monarchy. The Revolution established once and for all that while you had every right to be religious, church custom and dictates would cede supreme authority in France to the state, which would govern the Republic and its citizens by absolute principles of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

To assure everybody would achieve these grand goals, two mechanisms were established – mixité (social mixing) and laïcité, a concept roughly equivalent to secularism.

Social mixing was deemed necessary for social harmony, and it was the schools that would make it work. Leave your differences at home, children, said the State. Here at school, we are all equal citoyens (citizens). So strong, in fact, was the conviction that the State needed to create one happy family of citizens that associations were not allowed to organize privately until 1901. The Law of 1901 was extended four years later, in the Law of 1905, to the churches, which established that the church would be just one association among many and individual citoyens would have the right to join or not.

With Muslim immigrants now numbering 10% of the population, and with many of them asserting traditional distinctions in gender roles, the French feel threatened by a kind of repli communautaire, a “folding in of communalism,” or self-proclaimed “apartness.” With apartness, what happens to mixité? Without mixité, what happens to national unity? With religion (what else are headscarves about if not religion?) taking precedence over state, how will the state enforce égalité? It wasn’t that long ago the dragon of catholic intégrisme was slain. (2) Now we are faced with this new Muslim dragon – a new form of social apartheid, no less dangerous for being self-imposed.

There are problems with this analysis, according to Bowen. Not only do some girls wear the voile by choice, as a sign of religious devotion, some wear it for protection, knowing they are less likely to be threatened by thugs in the neighborhood. Still others, seeking to regain some dignity as immigrants, wear it as a fashion statement, since it reminds them of their cultural origins in Algeria or Morocco or other Arab localities.

Moreover, some have argued that whatever the source of the desire to wear the voile, outlawing its use only polarizes the nation and exacerbates the conflict of cultures. One sociologist, Farhad Khosrokhavar, points out the veil/headscarf does not carry the same meaning in France it does in Saudi Arabia. (3) In France, some girls put it on to please their parents for a while, then tire of it and take it off. Others actually put it on to annoy their parents. Olivier Roy stresses that Muslim culture in France, and elsewhere in Europe, is a new identity-creating response to modernity, not a return to the ways of the old country, and casting the phenomenon in terms of patriarchy is inaccurate and unhelpful. (4)

Largely missed, Bowen argues, is that the scarf law is being used by the political right as a stand-in for anti-immigrant resentment. Without a nuanced understanding of reasons for wearing the voile, one ends up suggesting to immigrants that they demonstrate loyalty to the French nation by wiping out their home cultures entirely. With a nuanced understanding, one can distinguish between the “practicing” religious Muslims, the “believing” Muslims and secular Muslims, trace the gradual but certain domestication of Islam as an “Islam de France,” and turn down the volume on difference.

Easier said than done. Once you establish the rights of Muslims to differ, what of Jews and skull caps? What of Sikhs and turbans? What of Christians and the crosses around their necks? Separate swimming pools for women? Separate physical education programs for Muslim women? Bowen outlines with great clarity and considerable detail the gap between the declaration of the principle of universal human rights and the practical application of the means to enforcement. He also traces the history of the politicization of the voile by Sarkozy and others, complicated by 9/11 and the riots of 2005.

What comes out in bold relief is how much easier it is to see things in black and white. To become Jewish, you have to enter through the religion, even though 80% of Jews in Israel are secular. To become Japanese, you may have to allow police to poke around in your fridge to see if you are eating tofu. To become French, it would appear your citizenship application might be threatened if you give the wrong answer to the question, “How many times a week do you eat couscous?” (Non-French examples mine, not Bowen’s.)

The pope wants Turkey to stay out of the European Union because it isn’t Christian. And then Turks themselves, as well as Tunisians and Jordanians, are looking to France to hold the line on secularism so that their states may benefit from their example and not surrender to increased Islamicization.

The U.S. is predicted to be majority non-white in a hundred years. But that’s an issue of race, not culture. While Americans and others are celebrating the nomination of the first black man for president, we should not miss the point this man is unmistakeably a member of America’s mainstream culture. Many of us in America have looked up to France as being above racism. Their republicanism was so strong that many assumed if a person “behaved French” that was all that mattered. Why should anyone worry about something as trivial as skin color?

But now the whole issue of what it means to “behave French” has become the issue, and while America deals with a Culture War blurred by primitive racism and an inability to get around a taboo on discussing class distinctions, France is stumbling over the age-old dilemma of where individual rights end and group rights begin and over the question of what behavior is tied to human rights and what behavior is a mere reflection of ephemeral cultural practices.

What all of us have in common, besides an inability to deal well with complexity, is a fear of otherness and the loss of cultural hegemony.

Germany is fighting the loss of its culture by trying to establish the concept of Leitkultur (“leading” i.e., primary ‘German” culture) and the French are distinguishing between “français de souche” (“French of French ‘stock’”) and “français de papiers” (“Paper [ = naturalization documents] French”). Japanese don’t have a problem with millions of Japan-born Chinese and Koreans who want the rights their fellow Japanese have. They’re Chinese and Koreans, so forget it. What’s the problem?

The world likes either-or a whole lot better than it does both-and.

What Bowen’s book suggests is that these troubling issues are best dealt with if we all stay calm, and we can all stay calm better if we understand where the “other” is coming from.

Problem is, good as that advice obviously is, it comes a little late. And it still leaves untouched the problem of irreconcilable differences.


(1) Princeton University Press, 2007
(2) intégrisme - loyalty to the Catholic Church over loyalty to the state
(3) p. 193
(4) See Roy, Olivier, (2004). Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. California University Press.