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

By John R. Bowen

(Princeton University Press, 290 pp., $27.95)

What do we call the following French person? She is born in France,and a citizen, but many of her compatriots treat her as an alien,threatening presence. She is easily recognizable, above all by herdistinctive head covering, which proclaims her religiousallegiance. No one questions her right to wear this garment at homeor in her neighborhood's streets, but many of the French have adifferent opinion when it comes to official "public spaces"-- aboveall, public schools. For many fervent defenders of the secularRepublic, letting her into the schools would pose a threat to theRepublic's very existence.

So what do we call this person? Until quite recently, we would havecalled her a nun. After all, hostility between the Catholic Churchand the secular Republic marks broad swaths of French history. Butof course it is not nuns who have been targeted by the recent lawbanning "ostentatious signs of religion" from French publicschools, which John R. Bowen has put at the center of his lucid andthought-provoking book. The controversial French women at issue areheadscarf-wearing Muslim schoolgirls.

The controversy around them continues to simmer in France, whilealso spilling across European borders. The Netherlands isconsidering an even broader ban, while Jack Straw, the leader ofBritain's House of Commons, recently attacked the wearing of veilsas a "visible statement of separation and of difference," andrequested that women remove them when visiting him. This is one ofthe strangest, and most philosophically rattling, controversies inrecent European memory, and in order to comprehend it we have tostart with France, and consider the things that the odd shift fromnuns to schoolgirls tells us about the relationship betweenreligion and society there. I have in mind three things inparticular.

The first is the utter centrality of conflicts with organizedreligion to the identity of the French Republic, dating back to theFrench Revolution. During the critical years of the Third Republic(1871-1940), Republican officials fought their greatest battles toestablish an entirely secular public sphere, while Catholicopponents disputed the regime's very legitimacy. The Republicanswon, banning Catholicism from the public schools and ending thechurch's official relationship to the French state. Today the legacyof this struggle literally soars above the Paris skyline. On theheights of Montmartre looms the great white bulk of the Basilica ofSacre-Coeur, which the church built to expiate the sins of theanti-clerical Paris Commune of 1870, while across the Seine standsthe structure that the Republic built in part as a response, theEiffel Tower. Today, of course, the advocates of assertive publicsecularism, or laicite, do not trouble themselves much with Rome.They have found plenty to worry about in the direction of Mecca.

Second, there is the fact that in the French Republican imagination,when it comes to religion, women hold a critical and distinctplace. As early as 1845, the great Republican historian JulesMichelet famously wrote that "our wives, our daughters, are raisedand ruled by our enemies"--that is, by priests. He and manyRepublicans fretted that women--those superstitious and ignorantcreatures--would be lured into fanaticism by the black arts of thepriesthood, and then draw their menfolk in after them. Today,advocates of laicite again focus on females, ostensibly becausethey consider Islamic women and girls particularly vulnerable toforced religious conformity (not an unfounded view). At the sametime, though, just as nuns featured with remarkable frequency inearly French pornography, so the current controversy also has anundeniable sexual undertone. A garment designed to desexualize thewearer instead turns her into a forbidden, exotic object of desire.(The role of veils in Western fantasies about "the Orient" scarcelyneeds mentioning.)

And third, we need to remember just how sudden and jarring the shiftfrom nuns to Muslim schoolgirls has been. As recently as the 1950s,despite the victories of the Republic, France remained in many waysa conventionally observant Catholic country. Then the 1960s and1970s brought a vertiginous decline in observance. Today, accordingto an amazing recent survey, only 51 percent of the Frenchpopulation identify themselves as Catholic, and only half of thoseCatholics believe in God. The implications for French society havebeen significant. Consider that the current Socialist candidate forpresident, Segolene Royal, has had four children out of wedlock,and this fact seems to matter not at all to the non-observantelectorate.

Those same decades, the 1960s and 1970s, also saw massive Muslimimmigration into France, principally from former French colonies inNorth Africa. Yet for a long time French observers paid littleattention to the religious consequences of this new wave ofimmigration. (Earlier immigrants were predominantly Catholic.) Theyconsidered the newcomers "guest workers," and assumed that theywould eventually return to their countries of origin, even as thesupposed "guests" were bringing over families and raisingFrench-born children. Decolonization, and particularly the brutalshock of Algerian independence, had left the widespread impressionthat France's engagement with Islam belonged to its lost imperialpast; it took time to register that France might also have anIslamic future. Only toward the end of the 1980s, Bowen notes, didthe presence of the large, growing Islamic population on Frenchsoil become a matter of widespread concern--and quickly enough, ofpanic.

How many Muslims live in France today? We cannot say with precision,because the French state, true to its secularist principles,refuses to gather such statistics. Bowen, drawing on the bestrecent estimates, suggests four to five million, or around 7 to 8percent of the population. But owing to differential birth rates,the percentage of those under age twenty is much higher: as much as20 to 25 percent. The predictions of a France that is one-quarterMuslim by 2050 are not unreasonable.

By the late 1980s, this demographic shift was becoming impossible tooverlook, and at the same time the radical potential of Islamism wasexploding into French public view. This period brought the infamousfatwa against Salman Rushdie, when, to the horror of liberalEuropeans, many of their Muslim fellow citizens hailed AyatollahKhomeini and publicly burned copies of The Satanic Verses ratherthan defending its author's freedom of speech. Meanwhile, inAlgeria--which before 1962 had formed an integral part of France--aradical Islamist movement took shape and tried to overthrow thesecular government, horrifying French observers. Notcoincidentally, it was in 1989 that the first headscarf controversyerupted, with three Muslim girls threatened with expulsion fromtheir school in the Paris suburbs if they did not uncover theirheads. Over the next fourteen years, it bubbled up at regularintervals, until finally President Chirac appointed the so-called"Stasi Commission" (after its chairman, Bernard Stasi) to study theissue. After it and another committee recommended the headscarfban, parliament passed it in March 2004.

The ongoing controversy has had more than a touch of the absurd toit. As left-wing critics of the ban have pointed out, it is curiousindeed to expel girls from public schools in the name of"integrating" them more fully into French society. The wording ofthe ban also left comically unclear just what constitutes an"ostentatious" sign of religion. Does a small cross or star ofDavid on a necklace count? What about a small crucifix? After thelaw passed, some Muslim girls substituted colorful bandannas forthe traditional black scarves, while journalists askedmischievously if schools would ban elegant silk carres from Hermes.School officials found to their consternation that the most blatantinfringement of the law came not from Muslim girls but from turban-wearing Sikh boys, although no one had ever previously detected athreat to laicite from France's small Sikh minority. In aham-handed attempt to cover up this particular embarrassment,Education Ministry officials allegedly offered to pay full tuitionfor the Sikhs at Catholic private schools! In the oddest twist ofall, two of the Muslim girls who became famous for defying theban-- after their expulsion they wrote a book about it and appearedfrequently on television--had a Jewish father and were named Levy.

This last absurdity reveals something important. Casual observershave usually assumed that the controversy pits "modern" secularRepublicans against "traditional" pious Muslims wrenched out oftheir North African villages into metropolitan France. Yet as Bowendemonstrates, the girls who took part most actively in thecontroversy do not fit this mold. Most were French-born, and manycame from relatively nonobservant Muslim families. Far fromsuccumbing to family pressure to cover their heads, they made theirown independent decisions to do so, often as part of individualquests to find a more meaningful form of religion than they knew athome. Bowen cites the case of a girl in Grenoble named Scherazade,who read the Koran in her final year of high school--in French,since she did not speak Arabic--and only then decided to riskexpulsion by donning the headscarf. Once expelled, she staged atwenty-two-day hunger strike in an RV parked in front of theschool, and gave numerous interviews to the French and foreignpress. Those are not exactly the actions of a "traditional" Muslimschoolgirl.

In other words, many of these girls are classic figures of what usedto be called alienation. They are torn between cramped andunsatisfying lives at home and a larger French world that speaksloudly of "integration" but in practice also doles out largemeasures of racism, condescension, and neglect. For the time whenFrench public schools and local authorities made serious efforts toassimilate immigrant populations is long past. The schoolteacherswho once saw themselves as the Republic's missionaries tosupposedly benighted populations now usually treat their stints inmajorityMuslim schools as sentences in purgatory to be served andforgotten. The police view large swaths of the poor Muslim suburbsas no-go areas. Opportunities for young Muslims remain restricted,and the Muslim presence in France's elite educational institutionsand governing cadres languishes far below the Muslim proportion ofthe population. And yet defenders of the "Republican model" decryany moves toward affirmative action as a betrayal of egalitarianRepublican ideals.

There is an extraordinary irony in all of this. What these girlssometimes call a search for "true Islam" is in some obvious ways adeeply Western phenomenon, owing as much to Romantic notions ofauthenticity as to North African Muslim tradition. In this sense,the girls have already "integrated" to a greater extent than eitherthey or their critics realize. While the Republic waves the bannerof anti-clericalism in the manner of Voltaire, they respond bypraising Mohammed in the accents of Rousseau. And this fact suggeststhat they are not rejecting secular French society entirely so muchas trying to negotiate some sort of modus vivendi with it.

Unfortunately, French Republicans and much of the French media missthis point, and all too often seem to regard headscarves as just astep removed from suicide bombs. As early as October 1989, at thestart of the controversy, the aggressively laic weekly Le NouvelObservateur published a cover story showing a woman wearing a blackchador under the headline "Fanaticism: The Religious Menace." Manymore sensational headlines about "la France islamique" havefollowed, especially after September 11 and the terrorist attacks inMadrid and London. The threat of violent Islamism certainly existsin France, but it is hard to see how the headscarf ban will doanything to reduce the danger.

In fact, even the proponents of the ban have generally recognizedthe absurdities of targeting teenage girls, and few of them thoughtthat the 2004 law would have anything but a symbolic effect. Bowensuggests that they often believed their own inflated rhetoric, andhoped that the law would eliminate significant causes of Muslimdisaffection, but this is doubtful. The members of the StasiCommission, to judge from later interviews, at best saw the law assending two messages to the Muslim French community: first, torespect the norms of laicite, and second, to desist from pressuringyoung women into religious conformism. Criticized for singling outgirls, they fell back on the justification that the law wouldprotect those Muslim girls who themselves wanted to go bare-headed.They also argued that once the controversy had arisen, they had nochoice but to follow it through to its logical conclusion.

But why does this conclusion have to be a rigid piece of nationallegislation? Bowen remarks in passing that the French placeinordinate faith in legislation as a remedy for social ills, andthis is certainly true. Indeed, such faith is central to FrenchRepublicanism, which differs from the American variety not only inits emphasis on civil equality and secularism, but also (in keepingwith its French Revolutionary origins) in the importance it attachesto the expression of the popular will in law. The manyconstitutions of France's five republics have tended to evince adistrust for American-style checks and balances as impediments tothe popular will, while elevating the legislative branch above theothers. Even in the quasi-monarchical Fifth Republic, the powers ofthe executive branch shrink dramatically if the president's partyloses its parliamentary majority.

A more important reason, which Bowen also discusses, involves thecomplex and even deceptive nature of laicite itself. Advocates ofthe concept tend to define it in terms of the separation of churchand state, but in practice it has as much to do with control aswith strict severance. The state may insist on keeping religion outof the public sector, but it also supports religion to an extentthat Americans would find unimaginable, under the justificationthat religious belief in general contributes to the health of civilsociety. The state or municipal governments subsidize and maintainmost churches and cathedrals. The state pays the salaries ofteachers in religious schools, so long as they teach the nationalcurriculum. It encourages the formation of voluntary organizationssuch as the Jewish Consistory and the Protestant Federation ofFrance, which act as quasi-official representatives for particularreligions. It also tolerates a glaring exception to the principlesof laicite in the eastern province of Alsace, which enjoys anexemption from the secularist legislation of the early twentiethcentury (it belonged to the German empire at the time). There,Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism all enjoy official status,with priests, ministers, and rabbis receiving salaries out of thepublic purse.

French authorities have long tried to pursue the same pattern ofaccommodation and control with Islam. They have helped to buildmosques, and set aside sections of public cemeteries for Muslimburial. Dominique de Villepin, now the prime minister, evenproposed in 2005 that the state pay for imams to receiveinstruction in secular history, law, and the French language.During the same years that the headscarf controversy was bubblingaway, leading French politicians--especially Nicolas Sarkozy, theneo-Gaullist candidate in this year's presidential election--stroveto establish a Muslim representative body that could help to shapea moderate "French" Islam. These efforts finally resulted in thecreation, in 2003, of the French Council for the Muslim Religion,which has yet to acquire full legitimacy in the eyes of most FrenchMuslims. It often seems that what matters most to these officials isnot an Islam separate from the Republic, but an Islam subordinateto it.

This context suggests an alternate explanation for what drove theheadscarf controversy forward. The crucial factor may not be thatMuslim schoolgirls were "bringing religion" into the schools, butthat they were actively defying school officials. The secular statecan accommodate certain "public" forms of religion, but it will nottolerate blatant religious opposition to state authority, howeverminor the gesture, however young the opponent. How else tounderstand Chirac's extraordinary statement, on December 5, 2003,that the headscarf is "a kind of aggression difficult for [theFrench] to accept," or the demand by a neo-Gaullist deputy that aveiled woman be expelled from the visitor's gallery in the NationalAssembly? (Chirac's comment also implies, insultingly, thatheadscarf-wearers are not really French). In his interviews, Bowenfound that French people frequently used the word "aggression" todescribe the wearing of headscarves. They perceive it as defiance.

This alternate explanation is not one that Bowen himself provides.An anthropologist who has previously written mostly aboutIndonesia, he tends to take French statements about headscarves atface value, as in his assumption that the proponents of the banreally thought of it as a cure-all. He relies heavily on interviewsfor his evidence, and the approach serves him very well whenelucidating the attitudes of Muslims and of local officials. But itis much less effective in dealing with French academics andhigh-level politicians, who usually have sophisticated rhetoricalskills of the sort that their American counterparts can only dreamof, and who consciously formulate even apparently off-the-cuffcomments with enormous care, in order to produce particulareffects. These men and women can speak with great eloquence andenormous conviction about the abstract principle and historicalantecedents of laicite. But they are also deliberately casting as aquestion of principle something that is, in critical ways, aquestion of power.

Since he misses this element of the story, Bowen concludes hisotherwise instructive and useful book on an exasperatingly irenicnote, by suggesting that the French Republic could resolve thecurrent controversy and ease the integration of Muslims if itadopted a looser, more inclusive form of Republicanism. Perhaps, heimplies, the French should "broaden their notions of what isacceptably French." The Republic, he preaches, "is based not on ashared faith, but on a faith in the possibilities of sharing a lifetogether, despite vast differences in appearance, history, andreligious ideas." Well, yes, in one sense; but the Republic is notjust a gentle ideal. It is also a power structure in which certainelite groups wield a tremendous degree of cultural, political, andeconomic authority. And this authority derives in part preciselyfrom defining what is "acceptably French," and from prescribingcultural and political norms for the rest of the population.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Bowen does not pay sufficientattention to the fact that French Muslim hostility to the Republicoften goes far beyond defending the right to wear headscarves. Thesame sort of alienation that drove some Muslim girls to search fora "true Islam" is also driving more dangerous and destructive formsof behavior, as became clear in the massive riots in the fall of2005, and the continuing high levels of nihilistic violence in themiserable suburbs that surround major French cities. It is aparticularly virulent form of alienation that elsewhere inEurope--notably the Hamburg of Mohammed Atta and the Leeds of theBritish bombers--has bred terrorism. In these circumstances, it isdoubtful that a well-meaning embrace of multiculturalism by theRepublican elites would do much to help. Extraordinarily generousmulticultural policies were long pursued in the Netherlands, butthe degree of mutual hostility and incomprehension there is today,if anything, even greater than in France, as demonstrated by themurder of Theo van Gogh and its aftermath.

So while it is easy enough, especially from an American perspective,to ridicule the proponents of the headscarf ban, it is much harderto say what they should be doing differently. Yes, it is absurd toexpel girls from school over this marginal issue, and yes, thecontroversy has probably harmed the cause of Muslim integration farmore than it has helped. Headscarf-wearing Muslim girls are notsigns of a "Muslim plot," as some of the more hysterical Frenchheadlines have alleged. But they certainly are signs of a greatsocial transformation whose outcome is unclear but whose dangerouspotential is all too visible. And frighteningly, despite the desireof many reasonable people in France to find a peaceful andreasonable accommodation, no one seems to know how to stop theworst case from developing. No wonder so many people in France arenostalgic for the days when Republicans saw nuns as their enemies.

By David A. Bell