The right of Muslim schoolgirls in France to wear the veil (hijab) raises questions concerning the meaning of the veil for Muslim women. The debate about Muslim dress codes and whether Islam belongs in Europe has become a critical issue. The debate that began about the veil in Islam has evolved into a large discussion about Islam itself: as a religion, the Islamic movement in France and the relationship between Islam and fundamentalism. The purpose of this article is to examine some definitions of the hijab and its meaning in the context of the Qur’an, and to analyse some of the understandings of the hijab, as articulated in the late twentieth century by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. It also explores the nature of Muslim reactions in France as well as their tensions with the surrounding society, as a result of the French ban on wearing the veil in public schools.
Religious and Political Aspects
On July 3, 2003, President Jacques Chirac set up an independent commission to study the implementation of the principle of laïcité [secularism] in the French Republic.1 In the previous weeks, the issue of violence in public schools had risen to a level of visibility so high in the media and the public eye that the French National Assembly had already created a special commission run by its president to study the issue of “religious symbols in schools.”2 The presidential commission had a wider scope—laïcité within French society as a whole—and a more varied membership: its nineteen members included school principals and teachers, academics, civil servants, business people and members of parliament, all with very diverse origins, religious beliefs and political opinions.
Sexual Autonomy and the End of the French Republic in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission
Michel Houellebecq has an unusual gift for revealing the nervous underside of modern life, so when his “futuristic” novel about an Islamic France, Submission, was released on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the coincidence was both horrific and apropos. Most criticism focuses on the anti-Muslim and anti-Enlightenment elements of the novel, but in this article I argue that Submission should be seen primarily as an engaged work of cultural politics. Houellebecq, measuring the temperature of today’s France, presents a culturally collapsed nation of the near future and focuses on women and Jews as the victims—sacrificed, as it were, by the secular elite. In so doing, I maintain, he pulls heavily from current events, all the while drawing on the memory of Vichy and the Occupation. The novel’s premises, topical at the time of its publication, are even more so today.
Islam, Secularism, and Women's Fashion in the New Europe
This article examines another European iteration of the headscarf debate, this time in postcommunist Bulgaria, the European Union member with the largest Muslim minority. Bulgaria is a country that has always been at a crossroads between East and West, and women's bodies and their fashion choices have increasingly become the symbols of the "backward Orient" or the "corrupt and decadent West" for those on either side of an ongoing national identity crisis. For the Orthodox Christian/Secular majority, the headscarf represents all that is troubling about the country's Ottoman past and Islam's presumed oppression of women. For a growing number of Bulgarian Muslims, the miniskirt has come to represent the shameless commodification of women's bodies and the moral bankruptcy of global capitalism.
As the current debates about the headscarf in Germany and France
demonstrate, “Islamic” veils and headscarves garner attention for
minority women in Europe to an unparalleled degree.2 For centuries,
Islamic veils and headscarves have served as powerful symbols in
Orientalist discourse, functioning as markers of the Oriental woman’s
supposed eroticism as well as convenient tropes for philosophers.3
Recent kidnappers’ demands in Iraq that France lift its headscarf ban
demonstrate the complex appropriations of Muslim women for fundamentalist
discourses as well.
Unni Wikan's Anthropology
Life Among the Poor in Cairo (London: Tavistock, 1980), 173 pp. Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 314 pp.
Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 370 pp.
Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in the New Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 308 pp.
Dress Practices and the Islamic Revival in Post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina
This essay observes contemporary Islamic dress practices in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a catalyst throwing into relief various tensions within Bosnian society – not only between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, but among Bosniaks themselves. Based on fieldwork carried out in Sarajevo, it looks at how people employ notions of culture and tradition when justifying what types of Islamic dress, if any, are compatible with Bosnian modernity. The essay analyses how people selectively draw on fragments from the historical and ethnographic record when they argue for or against veiling, and shows how, even though many denounce veiling and particularly face veiling as foreign to Bosnia, women who veil themselves equally draw on notions of culture and tradition when justifying their dress choices to others. The essay highlights how competing visions of Islam play a role in the transformation of religious, ethnic and gender identities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and argues that dress as a gendered bodily practice does not merely mark assumed essential differences between an imagined Bosnian and foreign Islam but serves as a crucial means of their construction.
Moments of Trust and Kinship in Iran
This article explores how an American anthropologist navigated the complicated rules of gender avoidance and veiling while living in the home of Iranian state supporters (or members of the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary organisation) in a provincial town in Fars Province. I argue that mahram is configured and activated not only by the dictums of Islamic law, but also according to contexts such as living circumstances, interpersonal trust and town politics. Mahram extends far beyond marriage exclusion: it is a matter of context and creation – the embodiment of mutual (dis)trust, piety and closeness. The recognition and practice of mahram is shifting, fluid and situational.
Cet article, basé sur ma recherche doctorale dans un service pédopsychiatrique marocain, s’intéresse aux dispositifs cliniques élaborés pour accueillir et traiter les inquiétudes parentales et professionnelles envers la santé des enfants. Les réponses institutionnelles, politiques et cliniques sont discutées. Ce travail considère également les inquiétudes des enfants et du chercheur qui, souvent tues, sont omniprésentes et co-construisent les dispositifs de soins et la manière dont ceux-ci sont étudiés. Une ethnographie à l’hôpital et aux domiciles familiaux, offre une compréhension plus fournie de ces inquiétudes omises. En conclusion, un hiatus entre les différentes réponses apportées révèle l’absence d’égard pour l’attention, réciproque et symétrique, présente entre enfants et adultes. Je propose de veiller soigneusement aux inquiétudes enfantines pour porter l’aller-mieux enfantin et éloigner les inquiétudes de tous.
An Analysis of Approaches
The contemporary preoccupation with the headscarf and the new veiling shows us the importance of symbolic messages of hair behaviour not only in Western but also in Muslim societies. This article gives a survey of different methodological approaches to hair, namely the anthropological hair debate of the 1950s, studies on new Islamic dress, regional and culture-specific anthropological research on hair symbolism and hair sacrifice. Hair is either treated in the context of religious texts (Qur’an, Hadiths), Islamic institutional concepts of the sexual body (purity rules) or in the context of sacrifice revealing religious concepts of an asexual human body. It is shown that the contradictory statements of these diverse theoretical approaches are the result of a cleavage that can be traced throughout the literature and also accounts for the polyvalent meanings of the symbol of hair. Hair can be viewed in the context of individual versus society but also in the context of individual versus God. Therefore, the analysis of hair behaviour in Islamic societies has to combine both relations to understand the seemingly exotic behaviour of ‘the other’.