Anthropologist John Bowen Interviewed About Burqas in France

Author of Why the French Don’t like Headscarves (Princeton UP, 2007), Professor John Bowen of the University of Washington in St. Louis is interviewed about the new commission on the burqa and niqab, set to give its recommendations in December 2009. Bowen describes other European positions against the burqa and how it has trespassed French positions of religion in the public sphere. He suggests that new forms of dialogue which privilege Muslim interlocutors are important to normalize the presence of Islam in France.

Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves

Speaker: JOHN BOWEN, Chair, Social Thought and Analysis & Professor of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis; 


Commentators: JOCELYNE CESARI, Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Director of Harvard’s Islam in the West Program; MARY LEWIS, History Department, Harvard University; AMY WALDMAN, “The Atlantic” and Fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Sponsor: Social Exclusion and Inclusion in an Expanded Europe Study Group co-sponsored by the Islam in the West Lecture Series 

Location: Lower Level Conference Room

Contact Name: Hilary Silver, Jocelyne Cesari Contact Email: hsilver@email.brown.edu, sprevatt@hds.harvard.edu

Details: “Author Meets Critics” panel discussion of John Bowen’s Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space, Princeton University Press, 2007.

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space

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.