In 2004 any clothing clearly
indicating religious affiliation in French public schools was prohibited by law.
Bowen holds the law was implemented following the blaming of headscarves for a
range of social problems: anti-Semitism, ‘Islamism’, the breakdown of order in
schools, ghettoization in the poor suburbs and violence against and the
oppression of women. Whilst the title suggests otherwise, Bowen’s book may also
be read as a commentary upon laïcité (loosely translated as secularism), which
frames French political and social culture and informs societal understandings
about the (acceptable) way religion should be practised, understood and
expressed. This focus provides an interesting, niche and in-depth commentary,
forming a holistic approach which stands out in a field concerning general
topics which have been previously treated with separately; headscarves, Islam, French
Muslims and laïcité in the 21st Century.

 

            Bowen’s first section explores the
concept of laïcité, which
came about following a long difficult relationship between the Church and the
Republic and now shapes French political policies. laïcité aims to ensure France remains
religiously neutral by favouring no religion and restricting religion to
organised institutional religion and private personal belief, thereby ensuring religion
does not enter the public domain. Bowen introduces some of the challenges of laïcité, like how the state can support
mosques and how public Muslim cemeteries can exist. The second section explores
the immediate causes of the law, like the way Islam became a public identity
for youth who saw themselves as neither French nor immigrants. The particular
focus, however, is the headscarf ‘affair’ of 1989 and 1993, when girls were
expelled after refusing to remove their headscarves at school. Bowen explores
the consequence of these affairs; the 1994 directive banning ‘ostentatious’
signs from schools, increasing intolerance towards immigrants and Muslims,
opposition and the opinions of political leaders. Bowen also explains the law
as the pressure for ‘something to be done’. Bowen also interviews Muslim girls
themselves, explaining their own opinions about headscarves, the law and how
they feel in French society. Finally, Bowen explores the concepts driving the
headscarf debate: sexism, Islamism and communalism. Headscarves were perceived
as a political action deemed to show superiority against other, ‘less moral’
citizens and display a Muslim identity. Many also saw the headscarf as a symbol
of female oppression, believing women felt pressured by Muslim men to wear it
and to protect themselves from the ‘Arab-Muslim culture’ to which the media
attributed rape incidents in the poor suburbs.

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Few are better positioned to
approach this topic as Bowen is credited as being one of the most distinguished
anthropologists of Islam. His scholarly work focuses on how Muslims live worldwide
across different norms, values, law codes and interpretations of Islam. Bowen
published his book after studying Islam in France for six years and he later
wrote another four publications about France and Islam, one of which also
concerning the veil. Bowen’s experience is demonstrated impeccably in his book
through the in-depth treatment of each issue and an impressive appreciation of
the way political and social context drives the perception of Islam.

 

            The key strength of Bowen’s book is
undoubtedly his holistic treatment of the issue, namely, his in-depth treatment
and appreciation of French political context. Most books in the field have dealt
with politics and French Islam separately. However, laïcité was arguably the key reason for the
introduction of the 2004 law as it forms the framework for the way France
understands religion. Furthermore, Bowen’s refusal to translate laïcité forces the reader to abandon their
own concepts concerning the proper relationship between politics and religion
and the concept of secularism, ensuring they themselves enter the political
context of France. Whilst living in France for six years, Bowen conducted an
extensive methodology of research; speaking with representatives of
institutions, feminists, spokesmen of religious associations, media and women
who wore veils whilst also participating in official debates like the National
Assembly. He skilfully blends factual descriptions of events and historical
background with the opinions of ordinary French, Muslim women themselves and
even politicians. The inclusion of such a range of views encapsulates the
fiercely opposing opinions and complexity of the debate. Moreover, such a
complex issue is greatly facilitated by Bowen’s structure of three well-defined
sections which provides a clear chronology of events.

 

            Whilst Bowen can be praised for his
holistic approach, arguably, this leads him to gloss over a key cause in the
introduction of the 2004 law. Bowen touches on the issue of prejudices against
French Muslims throughout, yet never seems to directly address it is a clear
cause. He highlights the way that the opinions of sociologists and experiences
of the young women who actually wore headscarves were excluded from the debate
and the skewing of information relayed through the media in favour of the law
and threat of Muslims. Indeed, Bowen explicitly states at the start that although
the law was ‘worded in a religion-neutral way’, ‘everyone’ understood the law
as against headscarf-wearing Muslim girls and that the headscarf became a
‘convenient’ symbol of dangers to France. Bowen himself notes that it ‘is never
just about scarves’, but rather, many of the social issues stemmed from the
failure of the state in coping with social problems. The inherent prejudice
against Muslims in France is arguably inextricably linked to the introduction
of the 2004 law, yet, Bowen seems to disregard its significance and omits it as
a definitive cause.

 

            Bowen’s book is worth reading simply
for understanding the complex relationship between religion and State which is
shaped by history and exists worldwide. He blends culture, history, politics
and identity seamlessly into one timely analysis on a controversial topic and
is consequently suitable for anyone interested in topical events or any such subjects.
Bowen also raises key debates for further discussion in the field, namely how a
state can balance shared citizenship with cultural pluralism. Moreover, further
debate could also concern whether, or how, the concept of laïcité can be adequately implemented to
ensure freedom, rather than restriction, of religion.