Book Review: Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf Ban

CoverBy: Mary Beth Chappell Lyles

Amélie Barras, Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf Ban (Routledge, 2014). 182 p. Hardcover $145.00.

In Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf BanAmélie Barras explores the struggle between the codified state concepts of secularism in France and Turkey and the Muslim activists who try to navigate and reform them. Moving beyond the idea of a simple separation of church and state, Barras thoroughly explores the French concept of laïcité and the Turkish concept of laiklik detailing both countries’ historical practices of heavy state involvement in religious affairs, especially those of minorities. Through the particular example of the headscarf ban, Barras traces the discourse surrounding secularism in France and Turkey and highlights how it impacts and often marginalizes observant Muslim women.

Barras astutely observes of the current situation that “tensions have not been triggered by women wearing headscarves per se, but rather by the precise fact that they have been wearing it while demanding active participation in the life of the polity and to be fully-fledged citizens,” which serves to challenge “aspects of the model of citizenship imagined by secular elites—a model characterized by a ‘neuter’ woman emancipated from her differences, and by an inherently dualistic thinking where religion (or particular religious expressions) are understood as being opposed to the secular (and by correlation secular spaces) .”

Barras skillfully illustrates her arguments with fascinating examples taken from real life. Her description of the spillover effect of headscarf bans in Turkey was particularly enlightening. Noting that the headscarf ban in Turkey has officially only been applied to students and government workers, Barras, describes the real-world consequences of the ban. White-collar women working for private firms are relegated to inferior back office jobs with lower pay and less job security under the rationale that they cannot interact with government officials in government settings while wearing their headscarves. That is if a firm will hire them at all. Barras’ argues that the state’s assignment of an inflexible, one-dimensional identity to these women bars them from full citizenship.

This thorough, well-written book is a fascinating read, especially for the American reader who will bring a very different conception of religious freedom and the separation of church of state to the material. It is highly recommended for all academic libraries as well as organizations with interests in countries where headscarf bans exist.

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