Policy In Public / Feature

Uncovering Headscarf Ban Prejudices and Consequences

Policy in Public - Uncovering Headscarf Ban Prejudices and Consequences

Combining compassion with rigorous scholarship, Elver's book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Islam in the West. By limiting her comparative investigation to a handful of secular constitutional democracies (thus bypassing the Muslim states where women are forced by law or custom to veil themselves), Elver concentrates on the evolving balance between the complex ideas in her subtitle: secularism and freedom of religion.


Book Review: The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion by Hilal Elver. Oxford University Press, 2012. 265 pp.


A 2009 Economist article exploring the impact of headscarf bans in Belgian schools posed a question that is at the crux of the headscarf debate in the West: "How should a liberal, tolerant society protect the rights of a less liberal minority in its midst? Anyone with a quick answer to that one, I would suggest, is a fraud or a demagogue."

Unfortunately, frauds and demagogues abound on both sides of the polarized debate. Hilal Elver, however, is not one of them. A research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Elver was raised and educated in Turkey where she saw her mother suffer crushing professional discrimination for nothing more than wearing a piece of thin fabric over her head and neck. Elver chooses not to wear a headscarf but shows great respect and sensitivity to those women who do in her new book, The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion.

Combining compassion with rigorous scholarship, Elver's book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Islam in the West. By limiting her comparative investigation to a handful of secular constitutional democracies (thus bypassing the Muslim states where women are forced by law or custom to veil themselves), Elver concentrates on the evolving balance between the complex ideas in her subtitle: secularism and freedom of religion.

The headscarf is now seen by some as a central threat to the West's hard-fought secularity. Why? Certainly not for the garment's literal, physical form. After all, plenty of older European women wear "babushka"-style headscarves. There must be something different, something "other," about the Muslim headscarf. It has taken on a metaphysical meaning, says Elver. A traditional Muslim marker of piety, modesty, and femininity has in the Western imagination become a "symbol," "sign," "signifier," and "synecdoche" for backwardness, extremism, and misogyny.

Nowhere does this metaphysical meaning have more physical, real-life consequence than in Turkey. Elver's two detailed chapters on Turkey are the strongest in the book. She offers a nuanced historical overview from the Ottoman Empire to the founding of Ataturk's secular Republic to the present-day rule of the moderately Islamist AKP. This background reveals why Turkey bans headscarves in universities despite being a country where 99% of the population is Muslim and 60% of women actually wear headscarves. "Secularists," she explains, "believe and fear that the freedom to wear a headscarf in the universities will be the first step backward, inevitably leading to the downfall of secular Turkey and a return to Ottoman times" (23).

Elver recognizes that a headscarf ban in such a pervasively Muslim country "may be amusing to outsiders," but she soberly reminds us the restrictions are "heartbreaking for those victimized" (32). The scale of the victimization is staggering. In just the first decade of the twenty-first century, more than 100,000 students, 1,000 civil servants, and 300 teachers have lost their positions simply because they exercised a certain form of sartorial modesty. The cumulative effect of headscarf bans since the 1980s has indeed been heartbreaking: "two generations of religiously devout women lost educational and professional opportunities" (30). Still, throughout these chapters, Elvers maintains hope in the Turkish democratic process. That hope was well placed. In November 2012, after the book was published, the Turkish government responded to public demand by lifting the ban on girls wearing headscarves in schools providing religious education.

Elver's other case studies are insightful and engaging, but fall somewhat short of the high standard set by her Turkey material. She clearly knows Turkey best. Her treatments of Europe and America are marred by too many questionable characterizations and a few factual errors. I couldn't help but think she was overstating the Christianness of the West and Christianity's culpability for headscarf bans.

Elver claims, for instance, that France's "cultural climate is conducive to practicing Catholicism." Not too many devout French Catholics would agree. She also says contemporary French hostility toward Muslims is "more aggressive" than it ever was to Catholics (126). Catholics guillotined during the French Revolution might argue that losing your head is worse than not being able to cover it at school.

In the United States, Elver says, Muslims are "marginalized, subordinated, and discriminated against" in a culture that she describes as "Judeo-Christian dominated" (154). Not entirely inaccurate, but an overstatement for sure. What is inaccurate is Elver's claim that America is majority Protestant. That's no longer the case, and an editor should have caught that mistake. These and other unnuanced and sometimes inaccurate assertions lead Elver to broader conclusions that are not entirely compelling.

It seems to me that aggressive secularity is a greater barrier to headscarf acceptance than the West's vestigial Christianity. Though there are exceptions, Western countries with comparatively more vibrant Christian communities (such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy) tend to provide better accommodation to Muslims than more thoroughly secularized countries (such as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands).

Elver's Western case studies do persuasively demonstrate that, while headscarf restrictions are comparatively less extreme in the West than in Turkey, the issues are still complex and serious. In France, Elver explains, the headscarf question is complicated by a colonial legacy and a system of strict, centralized secularism, or laïcité, that leaves little room for public religiosity. A 2004 French law ostensibly prohibits all "conspicuous" religious symbols in government-run schools, though it is widely acknowledged that the real target was the Muslim headscarf.

In Germany, the controversy over Muslim attire has been so prevalent that it required, in classic German fashion, its own new compound word—kopftuchstreit ("headscarf debate"). But in contrast to France, Germany's lack of a colonial legacy, its commitment to the Christian Democratic tradition, and its federal system have meant a more generous accommodation for headscarf-wearing women. Even so, varying state-level headscarf bans for teachers and public servants (but not students) cast a social stigma on pious Muslim women.

The United States comes out looking comparatively best in this comparative study. Because America has "the most liberal constitutional order and arguably the most religious-friendly secularism," the country has never seen a systematic attempt to ban the headscarf (157). And in the few cases where schools or employers have placed restrictions on the headscarf, the Department of Justice has successfully intervened on behalf of Muslims.

The healthy embrace of religious minorities in the United States has had a profound affect on young American Muslim women and girls. An increasing number of them are choosing to wear the headscarf as "a symbol of American Islamic identity, authenticity, pride—arising as a public affirmation of trust in the American system" (159). I saw this dynamic first-hand in the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom where one of my most talented and effective colleagues was a young, headscarf-wearing Muslim. Her presence communicated to the world that devout Muslim women are well-integrated into American life, they can serve openly in government positions without compromising their beliefs, and they want to spread the religious freedom they enjoy in America to other nations.

But just in case Elver's praise prompts this American reviewer to chant "USA! USA!," she doesn't let America totally off the hook. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the country experienced a firestorm of popular Islamophobia, often stoked by the media and opportunistic politicians. Elver cites the acrimonious campaign against the Islamic centre in lower Manhattan, preemptive efforts to ban shariah in U.S. courts, and the groundless but widespread fear that President Obama is actually a secret Muslim as several sad indications that "Islamophobia in the United States is becoming for Muslims what anti-Semitism was for Jews" (181). Even in the face of social hostility to Islam, however, the U.S. government has held firm in championing the rights of Muslims at home and abroad. The most demographically Christian country in Elver's survey turns out to be the most welcoming of Muslims.

Elver's case studies are filled with ironies and paradoxes. The most fundamental irony, of course, is the way mighty modern states fear modest Muslim girls. In reference to Turkey's secularist military and courts, the author asks probingly, "Why do the most powerful institutions . . . feel threatened by young women wearing headscarves attending universities?" (40). Some proponents of bans justify them as serving the cause of women's empowerment, but the impact has been just the opposite. In France the headscarf ban was supposed to help Muslim girls enter mainstream French society, but after the 2004 ban many of them opted to attend private Islamic schools or pursue their education at home through correspondence courses, furthering their social isolation. Elver particularly takes to task secular feminists for their thinly veiled "paternalism" toward Muslim women, assuming to know what's best for them. Far from "liberating" Muslim women, restrictions on headscarves damage prospects of good education and employment, thus effectively relegating those who wear headscarves to the home where they remain dependent on male family members.

The solution to this discrimination and disenfranchisement is obvious: protect religious freedom by allowing the headscarf without reservation. Full face veils are another matter, but the American experience powerfully demonstrates that simple head coverings pose no threat to liberal democracy. Accepting that truth, however, is intensely difficult in some socio-political environments. It requires, says Elver, that we "not only tolerate or accept the 'others' as coexistent, but celebrate the differences, even protect the 'others' from dangers" (200-201). Minorities always face dangers. And everyone's religion or worldview is a minority somewhere. Many Westerners are rightly concerned about restrictions on Christians and other religious groups in the Muslim World. Elver's excellent comparative study will compel her Western readers to reflect on how well they "do unto 'others'" at home.

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