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The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging

The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging

by Anna C. Korteweg, Gökçe Yurdakul


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The headscarf is an increasingly contentious symbol in countries across the world. Those who don the headscarf in Germany are referred to as "integration-refusers." In Turkey, support by and for headscarf-wearing women allowed a religious party to gain political power in a strictly secular state. A niqab-wearing Muslim woman was denied French citizenship for not conforming to national values. And in the Netherlands, Muslim women responded to the hatred of popular ultra-right politicians with public appeals that mixed headscarves with in-your-face humor. In a surprising way, the headscarf—a garment that conceals—has also come to reveal the changing nature of what it means to belong to a particular nation.

All countries promote national narratives that turn historical diversities into imagined commonalities, appealing to shared language, religion, history, or political practice. The Headscarf Debates explores how the headscarf has become a symbol used to reaffirm or transform these stories of belonging. Anna Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul focus on France, Germany, and the Netherlands—countries with significant Muslim-immigrant populations—and Turkey, a secular Muslim state with a persistent legacy of cultural ambivalence. The authors discuss recent cultural and political events and the debates they engender, enlivening the issues with interviews with social activists, and recreating the fervor which erupts near the core of each national identity when threats are perceived and changes are proposed.

The Headscarf Debates pays unique attention to how Muslim women speak for themselves, how their actions and statements reverberate throughout national debates. Ultimately, The Headscarf Debates brilliantly illuminates how belonging and nationhood is imagined and reimagined in an increasingly global world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804776844
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/18/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anna Korteweg is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and coeditor of Debating Sharia: Islam, Gender Politics, and Family Law Arbitration. Gökçe Yurdakul is Professor of Sociology at Humboldt University of Berlin and author of From Guest Workers into Muslims: Turkish Immigrant Associations in Germany.

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The Headscarf Debates

Conflicts of National Belonging

By Anna C. Korteweg, Gökçe Yurdakul


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9116-8


Feeling at Home in the Nation

THE MUSLIM WOMAN'S HEADSCARF seems to attract an unusually large set of interpretations in political debates. Kopfituch, foulard, voile, basörtüsü, türban, hoofddoek, burka, niqab, hijab—rather than simply being innocuous pieces of cloth used to cover hair, neck, face, and eyes, headscarves have become a foil for a long series of debates on the conditions under which religiously identified Muslims belong in public spheres marked by secularity or Western political traditions. Debates on where and on what occasions headscarves can be worn—in schools, hospitals, and private enterprises, only at home, or on the way to but not at work—turn into conflicts, sometimes heated, about where Muslims can show their religiosity. Debates regarding how headscarves should be worn—tied behind the neck, showing an earlobe, obscuring all hair, falling over the shoulders, covering the face—segue into discussions of what headscarves represent politically. Do they represent fundamentalist Islam? A threat to nationhood? Or a claim to a new ethnoreligious identity that deserves recognition, perhaps even the acceptance of belonging? Finally, discussions regarding the person underneath the scarf show that the subjects of national belonging can be defined in multiple and conflicting ways: are "they" Muslims, Islamists, immigrants, converts, fundamentalists, French, Turks, Dutch, or Germans?

Discussions of the headscarf's meaning and representations can also turn into pronouncements on the need for greater regulation: How should the state and others respond to women wearing headscarves in public institutions? Should "we" ban them everywhere, ban them in certain institutions, protect the wearing of the headscarf entirely, or protect it only if worn in certain ways or capacities? These questions focus on the role of the state in regulating whether Muslims can belong to the nation.

Political debates about the headscarf illustrate how the headscarf has become a symbol of the diversity resulting from large-scale, post–World War II migration into European countries and, in the case of Turkey, from rural-to-urban migration in a secular Muslim-majority country. In both popular and scholarly analyses of European countries, the headscarf has come to signify an immigration-related decline of the coherent nation-state, a decline that is either embraced as bringing a desirable cosmopolitan order one step closer, or seen as a threat to the very coherence of society. In many Muslim-majority countries, the headscarf has turned into a metonym for issues associated with the participation of religious Muslims in the public sphere. This can be seen in cases where the headscarf becomes symbolic of a "dangerous yearning" for a political order in which religious authority supersedes the authority of the secular nation-state of the postcolonial era.

In this book, we analyze the struggles over the inclusions and exclusions of national belonging by looking at "national narratives," the public discourses that define what it means to belong to a geographic community governed by a particular nation-state. We focus our analysis on four countries—France, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Germany—and join a group of scholars who have studied the headscarf, including the hijab, and burka, and niqab, through the lens of national belonging. We add to the work of those, such as John Bowen and Joan Scott, who have written what many consider the definitive books analyzing the French headscarf debates but who do not move beyond France to see how these conflicts play out in other countries' settings. Here we follow in the footsteps of Christian Joppke's comparative analysis of headscarf debates in France, Germany, and Britain. However, whereas Joppke focuses on the ways in which the headscarf is perceived as a threat to liberalism across these sites, we analyze the headscarf debates as productive of the particularities of national belonging, applying a critical feminist, intersectional, postcolonial lens to this project. This feminist starting point is in line with that of Sieglinde Rosenberger and Birgit Sauer, who produced an edited volume that covers the headscarf debates in multiple European countries. However, we generate a discursive analysis of the way in which national narratives are produced that is much more in-depth than is allowed for in their emphasis on explaining policy change. We also move beyond their focus on Western Europe to add to our cases Turkey, a Muslim-majority liberal democratic country, in order to challenge the assumption that these are solely "Western" debates.

When it comes to national belonging, for many of these scholars, but also for actors engaged in the media and politics, the headscarf symbolizes a rupture. Their analyses combine attempts to understand why, where, and how Muslim women wear their headscarves, including examination of formal political-legal regulation, in order to outline how the headscarf has inspired exclusionary practices in a given country or countries. In this book, we shift the angle of vision away from the rupture in national belonging and turn instead toward the opportunities that headscarf debates provide to revisit, reaffirm, and potentially rearticulate the meaning of national belonging. In other words, we treat the headscarf debates not (solely) as disruption but also as opportunities for articulating the national narratives that delineate belonging in the contemporary era.

National Narratives and Conflicts of Belonging

This book, then, looks at the production of narratives of national belonging, wherein we define belonging as the subjective feeling of being at home in one's country, of easily moving through its particular places and spaces, and the sense of comfort and joy in inhabiting a particular locale. Belonging, in this sense, also means being able to articulate complaint without renouncing the claim to belonging, or the freedom to complain about aspects of living somewhere without being told that you should leave, of not being trapped in a distinction between those whose home is unambiguously "here" and those who are seen as having either a primary or secondary home elsewhere. Belonging, thus conceived, is simultaneously highly personal and utterly political.

National belonging is fundamentally about demarcating difference. Indeed, analytically speaking, national belonging is always relational, constituted by creating a boundary between who is in and who is out. As Benedict Anderson and other researchers have shown, the very idea of nationhood is produced in the tension between the imagined homogeneity of the nation and the realities of difference in the populations constituting the nation. Difference is thus a challenge to national belonging with the potential of inspiring a fear that national belonging can fracture. At the same time, difference is central to the constitution of national belonging—because national belonging is always constituted vis-à-vis what or who we are not. We label contestations about the limits of acceptable difference conflicts of belonging and argue that they become sites in which to confront national identities by (re)enacting or (re)defining them.

The differences through which national belonging is articulated change over time, and national belonging needs to be read in its specific historical contexts. In the European case, the post-World War II influx of migrants in the aftermath of the Holocaust generated conflicts of belonging that continue to haunt the national imagination across Europe's countries. The popular story about postwar migration to Europe portrays various European nations as homogeneous prior to the shock of large-scale immigrant presence. The literature easily debunks this—each European nation-state is itself marked historically by distinctions of ethnicity, class, and religion that continue to shape these nations. However, the way the image of homogeneity can be constituted through its contrast with "immigrant difference" illustrates the power of immigrant presence in constructing national belonging as rooted in homogeneity. At the same time, the reality of historical difference within these nations suggests that national belonging does not by definition exclude newcomers to the nation. Rather, national belonging is constituted through the very process of figuring out what can and cannot be accommodated.

National narratives turn the real heterogeneities that mark populations into imagined homogeneity, through appellations to a common language, religion, shared history, shared political practice, and sense of shared origin. In addition, national narratives demarcate the bases of belonging to the nation through social divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Building on an ideal-typical approach to national narratives, we argue that they are "discursive formations," constructed ways of speaking that identify the contours of national belonging. Such discourses have "real" effects because they shape practices—including practices of regulation.

National narratives are by definition messy—they contain contradictory discourses regarding who belongs and who does not—but their messiness is productive, generating a sense of national belonging through the tensions and contradictions contained within these narratives. When we analyze national narratives, we see that key elements repeat over decades, even centuries, exactly because they are contested rather than agreed upon. These elements of national narratives identify the social norms, values, and practices that are seen as most in need of being defended or changed in defining belonging to the nation. Overarching concepts such as republicanism, secularism, and tolerance often become the labels for such norms, values and practices. However, these key elements in a country's national narrative are by definition not stable, but the contestations over the meaning and practices they label give them longevity and structuring force. At the same time, contestations over national belonging also enable new elements, such as gender equality, to become central in national narratives of belonging.

As we analyze the key elements in national narratives, we build on approaches to discourse and sense-making practices that are closely attuned to the multiplicity of meanings that can attach to objects, ideas, and practices. However, we approach national narratives as largely singular. In other words, our starting assumption is that each nation has a national narrative—a story told about what it means to belong to that nation. Yet these national narratives are uniform neither in time nor in content. The multiplicity enters in how the narrative elements that make up the story are interpreted and strung together. These elements reference beliefs, ideas, and practices, ranging, for example, from adherence to liberal democracy and gender equality to everyday practices of eating particular foods or separating trash for recycling. These beliefs, ideas, and practices that together form a national narrative are embedded in the everyday lives of people. In this sense, Ernst Renan's statement almost a century and a half ago that the existence of a nation is based on this "daily plebiscite" continues to hold.

Approached in this way, national narratives are anchored in the development of nation-states, and it might seem that such narratives will become less and less salient in our increasingly trans- and postnational world. The ever-expanding reach of the European Union, in particular, would suggest a decline in the significance of the national in structuring people's experiences of belonging. Indeed, when it comes to supra- or international processes, headscarf debates show that cross-national appeals to similar concepts come into play, which some would see as confirmation of the decline of national significance. However, we show that seemingly transnational concepts are given different meanings and are mobilized toward achieving different goals in the countries under study and, as a result, these concepts have particular meanings in different national contexts. Similarly, we witness how political debates in one country are reported in other countries, and how these discourses cross national public spheres. Yet, as the Dutch, Germans, and Turks discuss the French headscarf ban, they quickly turn to their "own" way of approaching this issue, again reaffirming their distinct sense of national belonging as they confront apparently transnational processes.

Moving down the spatial scale, evidence suggests that immigrant youth, in particular, frame their belonging in terms of the city, even a certain district of a city, rather than the country they live in, in order to challenge the negative connotations of national belonging. This is especially prevalent in Germany, where the Nazi past, not shared by those who came to the country after 1945, is often used as a historical reference point to discuss Germanness. However, we suggest that although these historical, trans-, and postnational processes are certainly in play, they do not or cannot replace the salience of national belonging altogether, as this example from our German case also suggests.

The discourses that form the resulting national narratives circulate through the media, government reports, and other sites of public debate such as the Internet, with its homemade video clips and blogs. Writing about the formation of nation-states, Anderson argues that the shared images underlying national identity are fostered, in part, through newspapers, which generate common narratives that frame definitions of national identity. Newspaper consumption reinforces the territorial and linguistic unity of the nation, creating "a sense that the nation or national society has an ongoing existence" and that "nationhood is constituted over time." The media both reflect and shape the discourses that constitute national narratives. As news media speak of the politics of wearing the headscarf, discussing, for example, its presence in key sites of national identity formation such as schools and state bureaucracies, headscarf debates become objects through which to analyze contemporary constructions of national belonging.

Government documents and social media are sites with different roles in the discursive production of national narratives. Government reports on the headscarf, including transcripts of parliamentary debates, social policies, and laws and regulations, delineate national belonging by referring to "shared values and practices" as they shape formal regulations that govern acceptable conduct in the context of the nationstate. Also, states clearly play a particular role in the formation of national narratives, with actors in public functions drawing on and developing national narratives to further their political and policy agendas or to strengthen state legitimacy, insofar as it is seen as dependent on the coherence of the idea of "the" nation. Whereas government documents tend to focus inward on the nation-state, social media can establish national orders but also transcend nationalboundaries to reach a global audience and potentially resist authority by being uncensored and fast developing. In so doing, such social media can create their own interpretations of national narratives even as they might shift the locus of belonging.

Studies of national identity formation also illustrate the ways in which "regular" people discuss national belonging. This literature alerts us to the ways in which national narratives live not only within the news media and formal politics but also in everyday interactions. To capture some of this, we turn to targeted interviews with Muslim women who are politically active in the headscarf debate. Some of these women, by virtue of both their minority identities and their political activism, speak through the media, but only a few can be seen as key players in these public debates. In much of the public debate, newsmakers give a platform to Muslim women who can act as code breakers for their own religious communities. These women often speak with a voice of experience to reinforce stereotypical portrayals of their communities and to affirm exclusionary interpretations of key elements in national narratives.

People who dominate the media and political discourses reaffirm, rearticulate, or transform these beliefs, ideas, and practices, often in contestation with other political actors who occupy similar political, social, and cultural positions. Those who become the object of these articulations—in our case, headscarf-wearing women—often articulate their own versions of the national narrative, in terms of how they belong or do not belong. In our analysis, we focus on those elements (regardless of whether they describe values, ideas, or practices) of the national narrative that come up in headscarf debates and on how these elements are used to articulate national belonging.


Excerpted from The Headscarf Debates by Anna C. Korteweg, Gökçe Yurdakul. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Feeling at Home in the Nation 1

2 Rejecting the Headscarf in France 15

3 Reinventing the Headscarf in Turkey 57

4 Tolerating the Headscarf in the Netherlands 97

5 Negotiating the Headscarf in Germany 137

6 Retelling National Narratives 175

Appendix 189

Notes 201

Bibliography 221

Index 237

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