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Why the French Don't Like Headscarves:
Islam, the State, and Public Space
John R. Bowen

Paperback | 2008 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691138398
304 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 6 halftones.
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The French government's 2004 decision to ban Islamic headscarves and other religious signs from public schools puzzled many observers, both because it seemed to infringe needlessly on religious freedom, and because it was hailed by many in France as an answer to a surprisingly wide range of social ills, from violence against females in poor suburbs to anti-Semitism. Why the French Don't Like Headscarves explains why headscarves on schoolgirls caused such a furor, and why the furor yielded this law. Making sense of the dramatic debate from his perspective as an American anthropologist in France at the time, John Bowen writes about everyday life and public events while also presenting interviews with officials and intellectuals, and analyzing French television programs and other media.

Bowen argues that the focus on headscarves came from a century-old sensitivity to the public presence of religion in schools, feared links between public expressions of Islamic identity and radical Islam, and a media-driven frenzy that built support for a headscarf ban during 2003-2004. Although the defense of laïcité (secularity) was cited as the law's major justification, politicians, intellectuals, and the media linked the scarves to more concrete social anxieties--about "communalism," political Islam, and violence toward women.

Written in engaging, jargon-free prose, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves is the first comprehensive and objective analysis of this subject, in any language, and it speaks to tensions between assimilation and diversity that extend well beyond France's borders.


"As Bowen rightly suggests in the closing section of his book (having dealt with recourse to legislation in the middle), underlying concerns about the development of separate communities (communautarisme), radical Islam and gender discrimination are concealed by the dispute over headscarves."--Malcolm Crook, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[An] excellent book"--Richard Wolin, Nation

"[A] lucid and thought-provoking book."--David A. Bell, New Republic

"John R. Bowen notes that since the French Revolution, in which the church was seen as a prop for oppressive state policies, the government has historically discouraged public displays of religion. . . . Why the French Don't Like Headscarves should be read by every American who holds public office as well as everyone else who cares about this great question of our day: What should we ask of those who want to live in our country?"--David Kirby, Chicago Tribune

"John Bowen's Why the French Don't Like Headscarves is . . . more a book about French political culture writ large than about Islam and France. And so it should be: Islam is now intrinsically linked with the definition of what it means to be French in political terms. . . . Bowen cleverly and vividly describes for an American audience the French political debate without simplifying or distorting it. He skillfully blends historical background, factual descriptions of events, in-depth analysis and lively discussions with philosophers and politicians, social workers and ordinary people he meets in the street. The sample of opinion he proffers conveys well the full complexity and diversity of the debate, which Bowen makes intelligible for a large audience."--Olivier Roy, American Interest

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
CHAPTER ONE: Introduction 1
Part 1 State and Religion in the Long Run 9
CHAPTER TWO: Remembering Laïcité 11
CHAPTER THREE: Regulating Islam 34
Part 2 Publicity and Politics, 1989-2005 63
CHAPTER FOUR: Scarves and Schools 65
CHAPTER FIVE: Moving toward a Law 98
CHAPTER SIX: Repercussions 128
Part 3 Philosophy, Media, Anxiety 153
CHAPTER SEVEN: Communalism 155
CHAPTER EIGHT: Islamism 182
CHAPTER NINE: Sexism 208
CHAPTER TEN: Conclusions 242
Notes 251
Glossary 273
References 275
Index 283

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