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.

Book Review: Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo, by Reem A. Meshal

By Angela Hackstadt

sharia bookReem A. Meshal. Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo. (The American University in Cairo Press, 2014). 290 p. Hardbound, $75.00.

Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo examines the sijill (the complete records of a judge or court) as a historical text where Ottoman state law, local custom, and Islamic legal theory intersect. According to Meshal, legal scholars have neglected the study of these documents and “an unfortunate consequence of this neglect has been the inhibition of research into legal theory and legal praxis and their osmotic influence on one another in a given political setting.”

Before the Ottomans, the concept of “court” was embodied in the person of a judge and held in any number of venues. Under the Ottomans, courts became fixed locations and, for the first time, legal documents became mass-produced and centralized. Judges were required to turn over their sijills to a professional archivist, who linked the documents to the court and the public archive. The rise of bureaucrats like professional archivists, notaries, and court experts meant that the authority of the written document would come to outweigh that of oral testimony.

Civil documents pertaining to things like personal disputes, property disputes, and marriages were given the status of “authoritative legal proof.” This impacted the autonomy of the individual by virtue of the citizens’ access to these records. Documents housed in an archive provided a static record that could be accessed under certain conditions; however, a copy of a document that could be carried or distributed would grant rights to the holder in the public sphere. “More than the archive, therefore, it is the millions of individual documents contained within it that provide the textual footprints of an ‘early-modern individualism,’ or proto-citizenship.”

The author’s focus on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cairo matters because of the heterogeneous nature of the city’s population during a time when the state sought to harmonize state law with sharia. Meshal’s book discusses custom, state law, and Islamic jurisprudence without falling back on the Western binary of religious-versus-secular. She admits Western influence on the Empire but concludes that important developments were established prior to this influence. The author builds her arguments from sijills and other primary sources, as well from a variety of secondary sources. Chapters are organized by topic, with topic subdivisions including a concise chapter conclusion. This is a well-researched book and I recommend it for academic law libraries, particularly those that serve Sharia or Ottoman scholars.

Film Review: Invoking Justice

c834By Susan Gualtier

In my spring 2014 FCIL research seminar, I explored the idea of using documentaries to provide a visual representation of unfamiliar legal systems. One of the films that I chose to screen was Deepa Dhanraj’s 2011 documentary, Invoking Justice. The film was very well received by the students and led to several interesting group discussions, both during class time and on the course website. Student feedback strongly suggested that they found the film enjoyable, that it helped them to understand how religious (and, to an extent, customary and mixed) legal systems work, and that it encouraged them to think about how one might research legal issues or handle cases arising under these systems.

Invoking Justice focuses on a specific type of legal tribunal in Southern India, where family disputes are settled by local tribunals called Jamaats. These tribunals, which apply Islamic Sharia law, are made up entirely of men. Not only are their cases decided by men, but women are not permitted to be present at the Jamaat meetings and therefore have no opportunity to defend themselves or to present their side of the dispute. Invoking Justice follows a group of women who, recognizing the discriminatory nature of the all-male Jamaats, formed a women’s Jamaat in 2004 where local women could settle their family disputes or report discriminatory treatment by the traditional male Jamaats. By the time the film was made, the women’s Jamaat had already settled more than 8000 cases, “ranging from divorce to wife beating to brutal murders and more.”

The film suggests, though not overtly, that the women’s Jamaat functions not only as a tribunal, but also as an enforcement mechanism and advocacy organization. Its members are shown approaching male Jamaat members to questions their tribunals’ decisions and processes, and using the police force to compel male defendants to attend women’s Jamaat sessions when they do not take the tribunal seriously. Dhanraj follows several of the Jamaat’s cases from beginning to end, which helps to unify the film and provides a narrative element. The film also portrays the power that comes with open communication; the women’s Jamaat has been a galvanizing force for women in the region, and groups of women are shown in animated discussions of topics that would previously have been considered taboo in a public forum.

Invoking Justice is entertaining and visually appealing, and provides an excellent insight into how one form of local tribunal might operate. It also illuminates substantive issues relating to family law and women’s human rights under religious and customary law systems, and addresses issues of discrimination not only in the law itself, but in the procedural practices of the tribunals, the application of the law, and the enforcement of the tribunals’ judgments. Because there is no prerequisite to my FCIL research seminar, I have found that, by necessity, it must serve as a crash course in international law and world legal systems in addition to developing the students’ research skills. Having searched for a film that would entertain the students while at the same time illustrating the issues surrounding religious law, customary law, and informal tribunals, I found that Invoking Justice was an excellent choice. Invoking Justice is distributed by Women Make Movies and can be purchased from their website. My study guide for the film is available online through SlideShare.