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The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging

0 Comments 🕔13.Nov 2014

The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging is an excellent comparative addition to the literature on Muslim immigrants and their children’s inclusion and exclusion in debates about national identity in Europe. Korteweg and Yurdakul’s strength lies in analyzing the specific history and socio-politics of each country – France, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Germany – in framing the headscarf. Legislative debates to regulate Muslim dress, either for those who work for the state, such as public officials or teachers, or for consumers of state resources, particularly students, or even for general members of the public, meaning women walking on city streets, vary in each country, but they share commonalities, including a focus on women’s dress rather than on men’s and the over-arching fact that the quest for a national narrative reemerges when there is a perceived threat to national identity. For European nations today, these threats include the European Union and ever-expanding globalization. The Netherlands’ failed attempt and France’s successful banning of the so-called burka (which is usually a niqab, or partial face covering, rather than an actual burka) is revelatory in that only a few hundred to a couple thousand women wear a face covering in either nation, and yet, these laws were vigorously debated because of their powerful symbolism about what it means to be Dutch or French.

While the Dutch concept of tolerance, stemming from “practical” accommodation between Catholics and Protestants, allows for multicultural subgroup affiliations, the earlier German citizenship rules defined by race have been relaxed in the new century, but given the lingering effects of the holocaust, German discourse has been more accepting of Jews than of Muslims in the new conceptualizing of “leitkultur.” France, on the other hand, has much more categorically sided against “communitarianism” as the opposite of French republicanism, which also rests on the highly constructed prominence of “laïcite.” Finally, in Turkey, the dramatically changing political landscape has led to a shift away from elite proponents of secular, Western-style enlightenment to populist tolerance of the headscarf, but support from party officials increasingly frames head coverings as democratic, rather than religious, freedom of expression. The authors pointedly make the case that in all four countries, it is usually men (although sometimes women too, in particular self-identified feminists in France, Germany, and the Netherlands) in positions of power who have the opportunity to explain the meaning of the headscarf. With the obvious exception of Turkey, Muslims are rarely invited to give their own interpretations, and if they do, the ones whose voices are privileged are those who are in favor of restricting it. In addition, especially in Turkey, but to some extent in the European countries as well, when poor, uneducated women wear the headscarf, there is far less public consternation than when middle-class, well-educated women claim the right to wear it.

Although others have written on the headscarf in these countries, Korteweg and Yurdakul’s contribution comes from juxtaposing the four nations, the depth of their material, and from their ability to mine the conflicting messages and what they represent, not only in the given society, but sometimes from the same actor. An excellent example is their explication of various French politicians’ insistence that the burka removes women’s “femininity,” despite the obvious fact that only women wear it and that it is therefore quintessentially feminine. What bothers many French people is their belief that it simultaneously indicates that the wearer is refusing to integrate into expected French norms for performing femininity. Former Minister of Justice Dominique Perben was quoted in Le Monde in 2003 (as cited in Korteweg and Yurdakul, p. 37) stating that “social integration occurs through women,” and the authors rightly highlight the mixed message that while decrying the loss of femininity, and holding women responsible for the socialization of the next generation, French power-holders argue that men and women should be the same in an equal society such as France. Ultimately, women’s femininity as revealed through exposing forms of dress is celebrated, as is their status as mothers, yet while these gender differences are perceived as positive, multicultural differences are to be eschewed in favor of republican “sameness.”

In the concluding chapter, Korteweg and Yurdakul expand their analysis to briefly look at debates about the headscarf in England, the United States, and Canada. They identify transnational commonalities, including emphasis on gender equality (often hypocritical, given an examination of all the ways gender plays out on the ground), multiculturalism, secularism, democratic participation, and liberalism. The comparisons, however, raise other questions: Canada is included as the only explicitly multicultural nation, and I was left wanting more discussion of how this makes Canada different and what makes it the same, and also why Quebec, as emblem of a minority group, is less rather than more tolerant of accepting others’ differences. Additionally, I would have appreciated some speculation about why the burka became an issue in France and the Netherlands, but not in Germany. The authors are covering so much ground in each chapter that, sporadically, an issue is confusing when first presented.  Generally in these cases, more explanation is given in subsequent pages, such as details on the Stasi Commission, including their failed proposal to change rules about time off for religious holidays in France, or whether German laws were only applicable to those working for the state or also to those consuming services (introduced on p. 137 and explained on p. 149). However, more details would be helpful on how the Dutch argued that a burka ban would not withstand scrutiny by European Human Rights standards and yet France went ahead and passed anti-burka legislation, though supposedly also bound by these same European regulations.

I commend the book for its scope and the authors’ attempts to use multiple sources of data (mostly coverage in each country from newspapers across the political spectrum). I am left wondering, however, about the inclusion of interviews with Muslim women: four in Turkey, three in the Netherlands, and three in Germany, but none in France. Korteweg and Yurdakul argue that few Muslim women in France publically make a pro-headscarf argument, but this still leaves the analysis feeling uneven. Additionally, the German women in particular seem to have been chosen haphazardly compared with the public positions of the women interviewed in Turkey and the Netherlands. If a headscarf-wearing university student at a conference could be interviewed in Germany, why could a similar French woman have been interviewed? Public quotes from a headscarf-wearing French woman running for regional elections in 2010, Ilham Moussaïd, are included, but in the appendix, the authors note that Fereshta Ludin, the German woman banned from teaching, was not available for interview, but do not mention trying to interview Moussaïd.

Overall, the book is an impressive and highly useful work for understanding how four nations have reached their current, contested rules about Muslim women’s dress and what this says about their uneasy and un-finished attempts to reimagine the national self.

Reviewed by Caitlin Killian, Drew University

The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging
by Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul
Stanford University Press
Paperback / 272 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780804776851

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