"Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space" is the title of a new book by American anthropologist John R. Bowen. For nearly three years ago, the French government banned headscarves and similar clothing that indicates religious affiliation from public schools.
Bowen writes in the introduction:
French public figures seemed to blame the headscarves for a surprising range of France's problems including anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism, growing ghettoization in the poor suburbs, and the breakdown of order in the classroom. A vote against headscarves would, we heard, support women battling for freedom in Afghanistan, schoolteachers trying to teach history in Lyon, and all those who wished to reinforce the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
France has a long-standing tradition of state control and support of religious activity despite its modern laws concerning secularity. We often have the misconception that the state stays out of religious affairs. In fact, the French government pays the salaries of all teachers in private religious schools, it organized a national Islamic body, and it and city governments put a lot of money into building churches and mosques.
But because the Republican political tradition that developed out of the French Revolution of 1789 targeted the privileges of the Catholic Church, many French citizens developed a certain allergy to religions' symbolism in public, and particularly in schools, a battleground between the Church and the Republic.
From that research, he's working on another book, titled "Shaping Islam in France," to be published in 2008, which will examine how French Muslims strive to build a base for their religious lives in a society that views these practices as incompatible with national values.
>> John R. Bowen: Muslims and Citizens. France's headscarf controversy (Boston Review February/March 2004)
>> John R. Bowen: France’s Revolt. Can the Republic live up to its ideals? (Boston Review January/February 2006)