Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves Islam, the State, and Public Space By John R. Bowen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 290 pages.)

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Katherine Bullock

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Abstract

Western anthropologists are typically concerned with interpreting the
non-western world’s unfamiliar cultures for western audiences. The
French law banning the hijab from public schools presents itself as just as
baffling as any non-western custom. Thus, it is fully understandable that
it would take anAmerican anthropologist to interpret this event, especially
for those in Anglo-Saxon cultures, where in spite of Islamophobia and
discrimination against the hijab, concepts of religious tolerance and multiculturalism
have generally translated into legal protections for women
and girls who wish to wear it in public spaces. So with a catchy title
designed to appeal to thiswidespread bafflement, the author seeks to explain
the intellectual underpinnings and political processes that led to this banning
of “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools on March 15,
2004.
Bowen, whose earlier work looked at religion and social change in
Indonesia, focuses on the public deliberations about the issue of the hijab as
well as on wider issues related to Muslim integration in France. He interviews
politicians, bureaucrats, academics, journalists, public intellectuals,
Muslim leaders, Muslim women, and (importantly, since it was a missing
dimension, as he points out, in the lead up to the law) Muslim high school
girls. He studies public texts and focuses especially on the crucial role
played by an often hysterical media in forming and firming up public opinion
in support of the law ...

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