korteweg and yurdakul, the headscarf debates

The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging,by Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul, is a detailed and thoughtful work of comparative cultural sociology. It focuses on four debates in Europe about the wearing of headscarves (in all four cases, actually niqabs, misrepresented as burkas, as the book nicely explains). Using extensive analysis of media and legal discourse, it shows similarities but, more interestingly, differences among the debates in France, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Germany. These differences highlight persistent cultural differences in the relationship between state, citizens, and religion: differences the book describes as “conflicts of national belonging.”

An important prior element to this work is the theoretical point that choosing constraint can be a mode of agency. This is crucial, and has been taken up by Korteweg elsewhere. It’s a Foucauldian point: if agency can be exercised only by choosing the less-constrained option, then it’s not agency at all! This insight carries through into the analysis of the debates because one of the most common objections to the wearing of headscarves is that they demean women. For one example, German sociologist Necla Kelek claimed that “the headscarf turns girls into sexual beings before they reach puberty” (p. 161). This theme runs through many of the cases: the headscarf is seen by non-wearers as sexualizing and/or as oppressing women who wear it. It is a credit to the authors’ light touch that they don’t highlight the arbitrariness of this line, although it’s clear from the analysis surrounding it.

I won’t be too detailed about each case here–you should buy and read the book!–but essentially all the cases have to do with negotiating the meaning of secularism as well as the particularity of their own heritage. For example, in Germany “religions” offered privileged status are Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish (152); this legal fact establishes a structural difference between Islam and the others. Combined with the fact that in Germany, “Islamic” is nearly coterminous with “Turkish,” the German debate takes on a distinctly economic/immigrant-focused tone.

Contrast that with France’s notoriously xenophobic culture, which combines with its secularism to generate a debate focused on the purported foreignness and backwardness of Islam, symbolized by the headscarf. Perhaps the most interesting case, though, is that of the Netherlands, where the ethos of tolerance and multiculturalism runs head-first into the embrace of liberal feminism. Here’s a prominent Dutch feminist, quoted on 128-129:

…it fills me with disgust to see a woman who, because forced by culture, religion, or man, makes herself so completely invisible. As a feminist who has spent a large part of her life [trying] to counter exactly that, I find the burka a very undesirable garment.

As an American reader, I was most struck by the fact that the debates didn’t seem to engage much with First Amendment-style “freedom of religion.” There’s a small part of the book, toward the end, where the authors compare their four cases with the United States and with Canada. I imagine that the US case would look strikingly different because of the central role of religion, and freedom thereof, in American political discourse.

As interesting as each of the cases is, analytically the book essentially “holds constant” the focus of the debate (the permissibility of headscarves in public), which means that in an important way the book isn’t actually “about” the headscarf debates as much as it is about the cultural conceptualizations (they call them “narratives,” which I don’t think they actually are) of nationhood and belonging in each of the four countries. As such, this is really a work of comparative cultural sociology, in the mold of Lamont and Thévenot, and it’s really about the cultural styles, skills, and habits revealed through these debates.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “korteweg and yurdakul, the headscarf debates”

  1. Re the US, a perhaps relevant fact is that Esra Erdogan Albayrak, daughter of Isalmist Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, did her bachelors and PhD in sociology in the US (at Indiana and Berkeley, respectively) because in the US she was allowed to wear hijab while going to university, while in Turkey she would not have been. Freedom of religion ideas in the US do give a very different construction to the issues than the various European ways of framing the issue.

    Good post.


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