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“Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?” Field Notes from the ‘Multicultural Debate’



This essay examines the discursive contours of the multicultural debate in Europe, and the ways in which it is cast in gendered terms. It does so by investigating one particular albeit highly contentious issue, notably the headscarf controversy. In recent years, this sartorial practice has turned into an important object of debate and controversy in various Western European countries, often structured around the question ‘is the headscarf oppressive or emancipatory?’. Rather than engaging substantially with this question, or with the various meanings or significations of hijab as a sartorial practice, we seek to reflect upon the performative effects of this question, and do so more specifically in the Belgian context. What kind of imaginaries does the headscarf debate in general, and this question in particular, limit or shape? And what kinds of speeches and actions does it enable or conceal? We argue that the headscarf debate is functional to the constitution of a specific idea of ‘neutrality’ on the one hand, and of an ‘emancipated gender identity’ (agency) on the other, which is primarily grasped in liberal and secular terms (through the language of ‘rights’). More than simply tracing the performative effects of this discussion, we also try to account for the possibilities of overcoming these discursive conditionalities and the capacity of rendering other forms of agency intelligible.
Religion and Gender, vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
URN: NBN:NL:UI: 10-1-101590
ISSN: 1878-5417
Publisher: Igitur Publishing (Utrecht)
Copyright: this work is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution License (3.0)
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’ Field
Notes from the Multicultural Debate
This essay examines the discursive contours of the multicultural debate in Europe,
and the ways in which it is cast in gendered terms. It does so by investigating one
particular albeit highly contentious issue, notably the headscarf controversy. In
recent years, this sartorial practice has turned into an important object of debate
and controversy in various Western European countries, often structured around
the question ‘is the headscarf oppressive or emancipatory?’. Rather than engaging
substantially with this question, or with the various meanings or significations of
hijab as a sartorial practice, we seek to reflect upon the performative effects of
this question, and do so more specifically in the Belgian context. What kind of
imaginaries does the headscarf debate in general, and this question in particular,
limit or shape? And what kinds of speeches and actions does it enable or conceal?
We argue that the headscarf debate is functional to the constitution of a specific
idea of ‘neutrality’ on the one hand, and of an ‘emancipated gender identity’
(agency) on the other, which is primarily grasped in liberal and secular terms
(through the language of ‘rights’). More than simply tracing the performative
effects of this discussion, we also try to account for the possibilities of overcoming
these discursive conditionalities and the capacity of rendering other forms of
agency intelligible.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
37 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
Discourse analysis, multiculturalism, hijab, Belgium, agency, rights
Author affiliation
Sarah Bracke is Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Culture at the
Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Her work engages with questions of
modernity, religion and secularism, with particular attention to issues of
subjectivity, agency and gender.
Nadia Fadil is a postdoctoral scholar of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO)
at the Centre for Sociological Research of the Catholic University of Leuven,
Belgium. She works on questions of secularism, multiculturalism and Islam from a
critical and post-structuralist perspective.
Since the end of the 1980s, Western Europe has witnessed the eruption of
public debates weaving together a myriad of topics such as migration,
integration, cultural identity, Islam and secularism. In the UK, the
publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988, and the intense
discussions and demonstrations in its wake, are usually believed to have
inaugurated these debates. In France, this honour befell the first affaire du
foulard, which flared up when in 1989 three pupils in Creil were suspended
for refusing to remove their headscarves in class. In the Dutch context, Frits
Bolkestein declared the failure of Dutch ‘integration policies’ and the
incompatibility between Islam and Western liberal values in his famous
Luzern speech at the Congress of the Liberal International in 1991. These
public discussions have presented themselves as ways of ‘debating
, and in many cases they became known as ‘the multicultural
debates’. From the outset of these public debates ‘the multicultural
society’ was problematized – to which the use of expressions like ‘the
multicultural drama’ by for instance the Dutch essayist Paul Scheffer
testifies , although not only by those who sought to criticize it. In fact, also
the defence of multiculturalism often unfolded on shaky and conditional
grounds, which served to problematize certain understandings and
affirmations of identity and culture, while consolidating others.
Furthermore, more recently various voices within the European political
J. Blommaert and J. Verschueren, Debating diversity: Analysing the discourse of
tolerance, London: Routledge 1998.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
38 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
elite have been heard firmly announcing ‘the end of multiculturalism’.
‘Multicultural debates’, in other words, is all but a descriptive term. Rather,
it is a discourse which structures debates on identity and culture in
particular ways, and needs to be carefully situated and contextualized.
This essay seeks to examine more closely the vicious circles in which
certain conversations within the multicultural debate get caught, as
questions and topics are set up in ways that already structure how the
conversation will proceed and which range of answers is involved. More
specifically, we are looking at conversations at the intersection of
multiculturalism and gender, where many of the discussions are structured
around the question whether ‘multiculturalism is bad for women’ – to
paraphrase Susan Miller Okin’s well-known interrogation.
This intersection
points at how questions and understandings of gender structure the ways
in which the multicultural debate is conceived, that is, the ways in which
‘multicultural society’ is imagined and discussed. It signals, in other words,
that gender operates as a critical terrain in the processes of constituting
cultural differences and constructing the national self and its others. A
central figure in this intersection between gender and multiculturalism,
and in debates about multiculturalism tout court, is the headscarf. While
many protagonists in these debates have declared veiling to be a sign of
women’s oppression, others have embarked on understanding the various
meanings of veiling, and serious scholarship has sought to demonstrate the
‘active agency’ of veiled women.
Our investigation takes as a case-study a recurrent question about
veiling which became an important reference point throughout twenty
years of multicultural debate across Europe: Is the headscarf oppressive or
emancipatory? As we trace what happens when this question is being
posed, we reflect on our participation in debates structured by the
question whether the headscarf is either an oppressive practice or, on the
contrary, might emancipate women. In the past decade, we have both
been invited on various occasions to take part in such debates mostly in
A. Lentin and G. Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism. Racism in a Neoliberal Age,
London: Zed 2011.
J. Cohen, M. Howard and Marta C. Nussbaum (eds.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for
Women? Susan Moller Okin with respondents, Princeton: Princeton University Press
For good examples of such studies, see F. Khosrokhavar, L’Islam des jeunes, éd.
Flammarion Paris 1997 or S. Silvestri, Europe’s Muslim Women: Potential, Aspirations
and Challenges, Brussels: King Baudouin Foundation 2008.
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39 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
Belgium and we have become fluent in speaking the language these
conversations require.
The position from which we write is one of engaged intellectuals
who are regularly invited to take part in the discussions and conversations
of which the multicultural debate consists. While in our scholarly work we
have commented on and critiqued the multicultural debates
, we also
participate in political mobilizations, social movements and actions that
relate to questions of multiculturalism. The framework of the multicultural
debates, in other words, is one in which we have regularly operated, which
we have appropriated and learned to navigate in order to find ways to
articulate our critiques, which were often aimed at this framework itself.
This kind of positioning, oscillating between scholarly critique and
deconstruction on the one hand, and political participation and action on
the other, is all but comfortable. Yet it is potentially productive when
dis/connections and uneasy translations, along with the frustrations of how
discourses structure and limit speech and actions, can become part of our
understanding of how social reality comes into being and can be
transformed. In this essay we reflect on the performative effect of the
question: what does it reproduce, what kinds of discussions does it enable
and what kinds of imaginary, speech and action does it render impossible?
The essay is structured as follows. In the first part, we briefly sketch
our theoretical outlook on multiculturalism, as the larger frame in which
our case-study is embedded, discerning three analytically distinct but
related (and often overlapping) theoretical (and simultaneously
methodological) approaches. This section details what we have in mind
when we subscribe to the view that multiculturalism is all but a descriptive
term. In the second part we briefly rehearse the significance of gender to
the multicultural debate, in order to substantiate the argument that
gender effectively structures the multicultural debate. These brief
discussions provide the analytical grounds for our subsequent analysis of
what happens in public and scholarly debates structured by the recurring
question ‘Is the headscarf oppressive or emancipatory for women?’. Our
Already in the process of thinking and writing this article, we were invited twice to take
place in a discussion (one in the Belgian parliament, another in an academic
environment) organized around this question.
A. Karel, S. Bracke, B. Ceuppens, S. De Mul, N. Fadil, and M. Kanmaz, Een leeuw in een
kooi. De grenzen van het multiculturele Vlaanderen, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff/Manteau
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
40 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
analysis particularly considers the operations of hegemonic notions of
agency and rights, and relies on the seminal work of Saba Mahmood.
Approaching multiculturalism critically
We understand multiculturalism not as a descriptive term which
supposedly characterizes a certain kind of society, or points at an increased
degree of ‘diversity’ within existing societies, but rather as a site of critical
inquiry. Multiculturalism, as David Theo Goldberg puts it, cannot simply be
reduced to a political doctrine nor to an intellectual paradigm, pedagogical
framework and academic rhetoric, nor to an institutionalized orthodoxy
and radical critique.
Its meaning cannot be fixed in a way that does justice
to the various symbolic and material realities (or, in Goldberg’s words,
concerns and considerations, principles and practices, concepts and
categories) it might refer to. A critical inquiry of multiculturalism,
moreover, takes the historical context and geo-political location of
‘multicultural debates’ into account. For this reason we understand
contemporary discussions of multiculturalism in Europe, as they occur in
the context of a post-colonial world shaped simultaneously by neo-colonial
dynamics and the decentering of the West, increasing globalization and its
effects on the nation-state, and new flows of post-colonial migration, as
debates about transformations of national and cultural identities in and of
Europe. In other words, we recognize multiculturalism as a correlate of
nationalism, and believe that discussions about ‘cultural difference’ and
‘the other’ ought to be considered in tandem with discussions about ‘the
national self’.
In this vein, we can conceive of multiculturalism as an
epistemological field that is structured according to distinct exclusionary
mechanisms and fulfills a functional role in the constitution of the idea of a
‘nation’. In methodological terms, this means taking up the question of
‘multiculturalism’ as a dispositif that creates distinctive fields of
problematization (that is to say, the question of ‘integration’ turns into a
new object of study), identifies a particular set of actors (‘the immigrants’
or ‘Muslims’) and is accompanied by an institutional apparatus that seeks
to transform the non-integrated ‘other’ in order to include it into the social
And notably S. Mahmood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist
Subject, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2005.
D. T. Goldberg (ed.), Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA: Basil
Blackwell 1994.
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41 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
Thus multiculturalism cannot be reduced to merely another social
topic, but rather has to be approached as a field of forces constructing and
shaping its own object of debate and regulating individuals according to
the very categories it creates (for example, the ‘integrated’ vs. the ‘non-
integrated’). Our critical analysis of the multicultural debate pursues three
distinct but connected lines of investigation, which effectively overlap in
the work of many scholars on the matter and rely on related (post-
structuralist and post-colonial) understandings of power. This distinction
draws attention to different dimensions of how power operates through
these debates.
Firstly, there is a general question of framing and the way these
debates are framed, and of how such frames regulate notions of cultural
and religious difference. Frames, as Judith Butler points out, are operations
of power that occur on an ontological, epistemological and ethical level.
They regulate the affective and ethical dispositions through which
phenomena are not only understood but also constituted. Frames matter
in terms of what is problematized and in what manner. Interventions in
hegemonic frames from minority positions are notably difficult, as such
questions, topics and concerns most often get reformulated in a
framework that sustains dominant power relations. Frames also matter on
the level of who and what gets recognized as a subject, as part of a broader
understanding of humanity, or as a life form worth protecting. The
question of the recognition of life which Butler elaborates begs the
question of norms and normativity: what norms operate in producing
certain subjects as ‘recognizable’ persons and make others more difficult to
The multicultural debates offer plenty of opportunities and an
abundance of material to carefully investigate the ways in which subjects
have been framed. A crucial argument about frames in the context of
multiculturalism is formulated by Blommaert and Verschueren, in their
sharp discourse analysis of the official multicultural discourse in Belgium.
As they argue, these debates about cultural diversity in fact stage cultural
difference as intrinsically problematic. The debates presuppose the idea of
a homogeneous society (described by Blommaert and Verschueren as the
ideology of homogeneism), which is defined according to a particular and
W. Schinkel, Denken in een tijd van sociale hypochondrie. Aanzet tot een theorie voorbij
de maatschappij, Kampen: Uitgeverij Klement 2008.
J. Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso 2009.
J. Blommaert and J. Verschueren, Debating diversity: Analysing the discourse of
tolerance. London: Routledge 1998.
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42 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
fictive understanding of the norms and values that hold such a society
together, now challenged by the question of diversity. Framing the
presence of ethnic minorities in terms of the ‘diversity challenge’ hence
becomes not only a way to constitute these minorities as ‘other’ – and thus
to exclude them from the national imaginary but also to construct and
enact a particular understanding of the national self.
This brings us to a second dimension of the critical investigation of
the multicultural debate: a focus on the intertwined constructions of self
and other. Clearly, debates about the other are rather revealing with
respect to the concerns and construction of the self. Analysing discourses
of multiculturalism provides a way to map crises and transformations of
the national self, by tracing how self and other get constructed in the
debates, and which mechanisms of representation sustain such
constructions. An investigation of official multiculturalist discourse along
these lines can be found in the work of Ghassan Hage. Looking at
multiculturalist discourse in Australia, Hage dissects how otherness
functions in the presentation of the national self, and elaborates this
functionality of ‘the other’ for the self in the following way.
Multiculturalism, he argues, figures as a central societal debate because it
acts as the solution to a problem of the dominant (white) society.
Multiculturalism is imagined as an object performing a function for the
national body, as a technology of the (national) body. The relation of
exteriority between self and other, however, needs to be carefully
examined in its complexity. On the one hand multiculturalism is perceived
to have an external relationship to the body as ‘the other’ outside of the
national self while at the same time it is an extension of that body, in
analogy with the way clothes relate to a human body. This implies that
multiculturalism operates as a tool in (and for) the presentation of the self,
while it is simultaneously part of the presented self.
Thirdly, we can consider the multicultural debates as a form of
governmentality in the Foucauldian sense, that is, as ‘the conduct of
conduct’, or the ways in which governments try to produce ‘the citizen’ and
all the organized practices and techniques through which subjects are
governed. In this perspective, the multicultural debates can be analysed in
terms of the practices, mentalities, rationalities and techniques through
which ‘proper’ citizens of a multicultural society are produced. Such an
analysis offers insight into how cultural and religious differences are
G. Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in Multicultural Society, London:
Routledge 2000.
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43 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
organized within a liberal modern capitalist democracy and renders the
institutional apparatus visible that ‘teaches’ others to become proper
citizens (here the civic integration tests recently introduced in various
European countries spring to mind), that is to say, how to integrate into the
social body.
The ‘Women’s Question’: From Bad to Vicious
In the previous section we have highlighted some of the ways in which
multiculturalism can be understood in terms of the regulation of self and
other in the realm of cultural identities. We subscribe to the view that the
problem of diversity cannot be simply posed in cultural terms but is
mediated by a set of transversal regulatory structures from the start,
among which is gender. As many commentators have pointed out, gender
matters as to how the multicultural debates are set up.
On a concrete
level, we can observe that a substantial part of the multicultural debates
directly bear on women, questions of femininity and masculinity, and
sexuality. Debates about women’s oppression immediately come to mind,
most often discussions about religious practices and attire (most notably
the headscarf) and about violence (‘violence against women’, ‘criminality
and unsafe streets’, etcetera).
The most well-known account bringing gender to bear on
multiculturalism is arguably Susan Moller Okin’s essay ‘Is Multiculturalism
Bad for Women?’, which asserts that gender equality often clashes with
respect for minority cultures. The essay was not only influential in a
scholarly context (provoking a lively debate in the Boston Review in 1997,
For a brief selection of literature addressing the intersection of the question of gender
and multiculturalism, see G. Wekker and Rosi Braidotti (eds.), Praten in het donker:
Multicuturalisme en anti-racisme in feministisch perspectief, Amsterdam: Kok Agora
1996; J. Cohen, M. Howard and M. C. Nussbaum (eds.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for
Women? Susan Moller Okin with respondents, Princeton: Princeton University Press
1999; M. Botman, N. Jouwe and G. Wekker,(eds.), Caleidoscopische Visies. De zwarte,
migranten- en vluchtelingenvrouwen beweging in Nederland, Amsterdam: KIT
Publishers i.s.m. Expertisecentrum GEM en E-Quality 2001; G. Coene and C. Longman
(eds.), Eigen emancipatie eerst?: Over de rechten en representatie van vrouwen in een
multiculturele samenleving,Gent: Academia Press 2005; S. Bracke and S. De Mul, ‘In
naam van het feminisme. Beschaving, multiculturaliteit en vrouwenemancipatie’ in K.
Arnaut, S. Bracke, B. Ceuppens, S. De Mul, N. Fadil and M. Kanmaz, Een leeuw in een
kooi. De grenzen van het multiculturele Vlaanderen, Amsterdam: Meulenhof |
Manteau 2009; E. Midden, Feminism in Multicultural Societies. An analysis of Dutch
Multicultural and Postsecular Developments and their Implications for Feminist
Debates, University of Central Lancashire, unpublished PhD dissertation 2010.
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44 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
in which a number of well-known scholars responded to Okin’s argument),
but also in circles of feminist and women’s groups. Here it circulated widely
and was often used to discuss questions of multiculturalism within the
women’s movement.
Okin frames the relationship between feminist and
multicultural concerns, and subsequently the debate about the tensions
between them, through the following question: What should be done
when the claims of minority cultures or religions clash with the norm of
gender equality that is at least formally endorsed by liberal states? The
question needs to be understood as a feminist intervention within the field
of political theory: Okin’s argument is a critique of the concept of group
rights, grounded in her understanding of the social relations of gender.
Advocates of group rights, she argues, commonly treat cultural groups as
monolithic, while they pay little attention to the private sphere. This
renders them blind to the fact that the sphere of personal, sexual, and
reproductive life is the central focus of most cultures, and that most
cultures aim at men’s control over women. In other words, theories of
group rights remain blind to the fact that the organization of gender
relations lies at the heart of culture. Okin’s argument is further framed by
the following assertions: firstly, while all of the world’s cultures have
patriarchal pasts, some, mostly Western liberal cultures, have departed
further from them than others, and secondly, many cultural minorities
claiming group rights are more patriarchal than the surrounding ‘majority’
cultures. For this reason, Okin concludes, feminism stands in tension with
the cultural relativism of group rights multiculturalism.
Okin’s argument has been widely discussed and critiqued, notably
in the responses accompanying the publication of the original essay.
critiques, often revolve around, firstly, the problematic notions of culture
and more specifically the ironic way in which Okin’s argument supports a
monolithic and unifying notion of culture.
Secondly, they criticize that
culture in Okin’s argument tends to be ‘the stuff that sticks’ to minority
groups, whereas cultural and national formations within majority cultures
simply remain invisible.
As a result of the way Okin’s argument is
See e.g. G. Coene and C. Longman (eds.), Eigen emancipatie eerst ?: Over de rechten en
representatie van vrouwen in een multiculturele samenleving, Gent: Academia Press
J. Cohen, M. Howard and M. C. Nussbaum (eds.), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
Susan Moller Okin with respondents, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999.
E.g. Bhabha in Cohen, Howard and Nussbaum, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?.
E.g. Honig and Al-Hibri in Cohen, Howard and Nussbaum, Is Multiculturalism Bad for
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
45 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
organized, minority groups get ‘cultured’ in disproportionate ways, leaving
‘culture’ to signify the divergence from an invisible norm.
A central element, however, which emerges both throughout Okin’s
essay and the different critiques it provoked, is the need for a broader
understanding of how gender relations pertain to questions of culture and
of community and nation; an understanding in which the constitutive
dimension of gender relations within various kinds of social, political and
cultural formations is rendered visible. The challenge becomes then to
understand how particular cultural, political and economic regimes rely on
distinctive gender relations, and how a gendered/sexual division of labour
is integral to both liberal and non-liberal cultural and structural modes of
organization, including capitalist modes of production. Indeed, Okin’s line
of reasoning, focusing on gender relations in ‘other’ cultures, fails to
account for the way in which gender relations are central to the
constitution of national and cultural identities tout court, and to any form
of national boundary making. It also fails to account for how certain kinds
of concern with the position of Muslim women are functional to the
constitution of Western European national identities.
The work of Nira Yuval-Davis takes up some of these challenges,
and has begun to analyse more systematically the ways in which gender
matters to the nation and, by extension, to an understanding of ‘culture’
or a cultural community we would add. Gender and Nation was written as a
critical intervention in classical theories about nations and nationalism
where gender appears irrelevant. Instead, Yuval-Davis argues, gender
relations are located at the heart of (the reproduction of) the nation
which is commonly conceptualized as an extension of family and kinship
relations, most often understood as based on a ‘natural’ sexual division of
labour. Yuval-Davis proposes to trace this centrality of gender on the level
of biological, cultural and symbolical reproduction.
In biological terms,
the demographic reproduction of the nation takes place through women,
in a context of bio-politics that seek to either encourage or discourage with
various degrees of pressure (certain groups of) women to bear children.
In terms of cultural reproduction, in the mythical unity of the imagined
community, the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is maintained and
reproduced by social constructions of manhood and womanhood and of
N. Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, London: Sage 1997.
For just one example of how the demographic argument figures in discussions about
culture, multiculturalism and civilization, see Huntington’s (in)famous ‘clash of
civilization’ thesis.
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46 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
sexuality deemed appropriate to the nation. In this sense, women
structurally fulfill a ‘border guard’ function as they come to embody the
collectivity, which results in specific expectations regarding cultural codes
of style of dress and behaviour. This theoretical framework allows us, in
other words, to understand how gender relations matter to the formation
of all national and cultural entities: how gender comes into being in
relation to national and cultural formations, and vice versa.
This might give us a first indication of how the focus on Muslim
women (and the headscarf) in the current multicultural debates can be
understood. Gender relations, or the ascription of specific gender patterns,
operate as a demarcation line that is functional in the process of othering
of the concerned group, which, moreover, is consolidated as a group
precisely through this process of othering. By addressing the issue of the
headscarf, by ‘problematizing’ it, as Foucault would have it, the gendered
character of the nation is not only highlighted along the lines of
appropriate vs. inappropriate ways of presenting female bodies in the
public sphere , but the primary way in addressing and constructing the
other occurs through the same gendered register.
More than providing
an account of Muslim women, the gendered dimension in the multicultural
debate figures as a re-enactment of the gendered and sexual boundaries of
the nation.
Is the headscarf emancipatory or oppressive?
The headscarf debate figures as one of the central points around which our
interventions in the multicultural debates have been organized. Not unlike
what happened in several other Western European countries, in Belgium
the religious practice of hijab has become one of the chief symbols of what
is perceived as a growing visibility of Islam in the public sphere. The debate
in Belgium closely follows the rhythms of that of its southern neighbour,
France. While the first episode of the French headscarf debate, between
1989 and 1992, mostly affected the Francophone audience in Belgium, at
the turn of the 21st century this debate reached a broader, national scope
implicating both Francophone and Flemish protagonists.
These different
J. W. Scott, The Politics of the Veil, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2007.
For an overview of the Belgian headscarf debate see C. Longman, ‘Over our Heads?
Muslim Women as Symbols and Agents in the Headscarf Debate in Flanders, Belgium’
in Social Justice. Anthropology, Peace and Human Rights 4:3-4 (2003), 300-332; N.
Fadil, ‘Het hoofddoekendebat. Meer dan een debat over een stukje stof?in Ethische
Perspectieven/Ethical Perspectives 14:4 (2004), 373-386.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
47 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
episodes were structured according to two broad interrogations: firstly, the
question of women’s emancipation and hijab as a potential site of
oppression and, secondly, hijab’s compatibility with the neutrality of the
public sphere. The first question has been critical to the issue of hijab in
schools and to the justification of bans comparable to the ones imposed in
France. While Belgium has not adopted a general (national) regulation with
regard to the hijab, an overwhelming majority of public and private schools
do prohibit this practice
often justifying this measure on the grounds of
social pressure (to veil) endured by young Muslim women, or of cases of
forced veiling.
Another important argument that recurs throughout this
discussion is the neutrality of the public sphere. While this argument has
not consistently been used in relation to students, it has figured as a
ground to justify the prohibition of headscarves in the case of public
officials and teachers.
At several occasions we were invited, or invited ourselves, to
intervene in this polemic setting. The positions we have upheld in these
contexts were often defensive. To the allegations that veiled women are
‘victims of social coercion (or tradition)’ or suffer forms of ‘false
consciousness’ (in thinking they ‘choose’ to veil),
we would retort that
their agency is complex and pointed at several stories of strong,
emancipated women who consciously chose to wear the veil. And to
depictions of veiled Muslim women as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘culprits’ we
would, both in our scholarly and public interventions, point out that these
women were often the source of new forms of feminism in which Islam
and feminist commitments converge and account for new forms of
Yet after almost a decade of debating ‘the headscarf’ and
Forty per cent of schools in Belgium are directly organized and funded by public
authorities while 60 per cent are initiated by local communities (mostly Catholic
churches and organizations) and publicly funded.
This argument has been central to the decision of the board of education of the
Flemish public schools to adopt a general ban, after a similar ban that was adopted by
the Royal Atheneum of Antwerp in June 2009 had been largely contested. For an
account of the ‘headscarf ban’ in the Flemish public school see N. Fadil, ‘On not-
/unveiling as an Ethical Practice’ in Feminist Review vol. 98 (2011), 83-109.
For an illustration of this type of argumentation, see G. Van Istendael, ‘Het masker van
de dwang’, De Standaard, 23/08/08.
S. Bracke, ‘Feminisme en islam: intersecties’ in I. Arteel, H. Müller, M. De Metsenaere
And S. Bossaert (eds.) Vrouw(on)vriendelijk? Islam feministisch bekeken, Brussel: VUB-
Press 2007, 13-38; S. Bracke, ‘Subjects of debate: secular and sexual exceptionalism,
and Muslim women in the Netherlands’ in Feminist Review 98 (2011), 28-46; N. Fadil,
‘Witte Mannen tegen de hoofddoek’, De Morgen, 9/09/08.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
48 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
‘veiled women’ we have come to a point of intellectual and political
exhaustion. It is the kind of exhaustion that comes not only from repeating
the same arguments over and again in a context in which hegemonic
notions about woman and Islam continue to be shaped by racism. It also
emerges from our increasing awareness of the paradoxical role we play as
scholars, attempting to defend the voices of the women who are too often
singled out as a problem, and sustaining the very conditions and terms
through which such an interpellation of ‘veiled women’ occurs.
A first problem lies in the way our interventions willingly or
unwillingly contribute to the problematization of the headscarf and veiled
women. By using this term we refer to the Foucauldian approach of
examining how at a specific moment of history certain practices are turned
into a matter of concern and debate. Rather than pointing at the existence
of a particular problem, problematization announces the establishment of
a set of scientific and non-scientific discourses and institutional practices
that seek to regulate a distinctive conduct singled out as an object of
This also means that the eruption of societal controversies is not
considered to be a result of the mere manifestation of specific social
phenomena or practices. Rather, social controversies are the very process
through which certain practices are turned into ‘social problems’ and thus
become subjected to a set of biopolitical regulations.
In Foucault’s view,
this construction of a specific phenomenon into a ‘social problem’ is not a
neutral enterprise, but closely tied with the establishment of specific
regulatory ideals or a regime of truth. Applied to our case, this means that
the question no longer revolves around the issue of whether the headscarf
does or does not obstruct either the principle of neutrality or the principle
of women’s emancipation. According to this perspective, the hijab in itself
is void of social meaning, and veiling only becomes constituted as a
meaningful act by a distinctive discursive apparatus. The question then
becomes: how to account for the very notion of neutrality and
emancipation that is constructed by singling out veiled women and turning
them into an object of debate? The critical task that awaits us, in other
words, is to understand how the headscarf debate is functional to the
constitution of (a specific idea of) ‘neutrality’ on the one hand, and that of
an ‘emancipated gender identity’ on the other hand, together with the
M. Foucault The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge, Translated by Robert
Hurley, London: Penguin Books, 1998 [1976].
Although Foucault does not necessarily link the issue of problematization with
biopolitical regulations, a term he restricts to a very specific form of power located
historically in the 18th century, we here adopt a position which links both questions.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
49 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
extent to which both are seen to be implicating each other. Several
analyses have shown how addressing the question of hijab redefines the
contours of the nation and emancipation in exclusionary terms.
The mere
act of addressing the headscarf, either in its affirmation or negation,
contributes to the way this sartorial practice becomes singled out from
other practices, to be attributed a status of exceptionality.
Within this
kind of discursive regime, non-veiled women’s bodies are attributed a
status of ontological neutrality, as Fadil argues elsewhere, while veiling is
seen to obstruct the homogeneity of that space both in terms of forging a
‘neutral’ public space as well as of what counts as an emancipated female
A second problem lies in the framing of this practice. While
advocates of the headscarf ban have often done so on the grounds that
hijab acts as a (religious or political) symbol that breaches the principle of
neutrality, opponents of the ban as we are have tended to question
these claims by underlining the religious character of this practice and thus
claiming its constitutional guarantee. Our reliance on the juridical language
of fundamental rights including that of religious freedom reflects the
epistemic weight that is attributed to this discourse in not only advocating
certain claims, but also in rendering them intelligible. The idea that all
individuals are ‘free’ to choose and practice their religiosity is often viewed
as an essential corner stone of liberal democracy, enabling the articulation
of a distinctive set of claims that are under its auspices. By taking a case
against what we present as ‘forced unveiling’, the same liberal taxonomy is
used to defend veiled women. Yet this reliance on the liberal language of
rights confronts us with a number of dilemmas linked to the performative
effects of framing the headscarf primarily as a religious right.
Firstly, throughout these debates, the practice of veiling is fixed in
its meaning either as a symbol or as a religious practice , obscuring the
See for instance J. W. Scott, The Politics of the Veil, Princeton: Princeton University
Press 2007 and A. Moors, ‘The Dutch and the face-veil: The politics of discomfort’ in
Social Anthropology 17:4 (2009), 393-408.
We borrow this understanding of exceptionality from Mayanti Fernando. See M. L.
Fernando, ‘Exceptional citizens: Secular Muslim women and the politics of difference
in France’ in Social Anthropology 17:4 (2009), 379-392.
N. Fadil, ‘On not/unveiling as an ethical practice’ in Feminist Review 98 (2011), 83-109.
We draw here on the work of scholars who have pointed at the way the Human Rights
discourse not only enables individual agency, but equally functions as the vehicle
through which state power operates. See for instance W. Brown, “The most we can
hope for...’ Human rights and the politics of fatalism’ in The South Atlantic Quarterly
103:2/3 (2004), 451-463.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
50 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
variety of significations it may carry. Various studies have shown that the
headscarf can indeed mean a variety of things. While it does figure as part
of an economy of pious conduct,
it can simultaneously be part of a
stronger affirmation of one’s Muslim identity, or a sartorial practice that
enables the expression of a modern Muslim identity.
Moreover, in
addressing the headscarf primarily as a religious practice that is considered
to be crucial for Muslim identity, we unwillingly contribute to the
attribution of this practice to Muslim identity a move that authorizes
claims of ‘authenticity’. There is a long legacy, both in social sciences and in
women’s movements and feminism, of critically considering the colonial
legacies of the ways in which the hijab (or other practices) has been
constructed as an essential attribute of Muslim identity, and investigating
how the colonial marking of Muslims as ‘religious other’ has been pivotal in
this process.
Addressing the hijab in terms of a religious practice that is
primarily tied with the affirmation of a Muslim identity risks to fixate its
signification, and contributes to the continued colonial framing of Islam
and the ways in which this framing is structured by gender, as we have
been able to observe throughout the multicultural debates.
Defending the hijab as a ‘religious right’ or as ‘religious freedom’,
furthermore, not only frames the hijab in a specific vocabulary, but these
very terms also imply a particular understanding of agency which fails to
fully capture the ethical and political locations of the women concerned. A
central argument in many of our interventions has been to undo the often
See for instance the work of S. Amir-Moazami, Politisierte Religion. Der Kopftuchstreit
in Deutschland und Frankreich, Bielefeld: transcript 2007; V. Amiraux, ‘Discours Voilés
Sur Les Musulmanes En Europe: Comment Les Musulmans Sont-ils Devenus Des
Musulmanes?’ in Social Compass 50:1 (2003), 85-96; J. Jouili, and S. Amir-Moazami,
‘Knowledge, Empowerment and Religious Authority Among Pious Muslim Women in
France and Germany’ in Muslim World 96 (2006), 617-642.
See for instance the work of Y. Navaro-Yashin, ‘The Market for Identities: Secularism,
Islamism, Commodities’ in D. Kandiyoti and A. Saktanber (eds.), Fragments of Culture:
The Everyday of Modern Turkey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2002, 1-53,
or the work of E. Tarlo, ‘Islamic Cosmopolitanism: The Sartorial Biographies of Three
Muslim Women in London’ in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture
11:2&3 (2007),143-172.
See in these cases Leila Ahmed’s seminal historical account of the way the hijab has
been constructed as a religious practice that is essentially tied to Muslim identity
throughout modernizing and colonial discourses, cf. L. Ahmed, Women and Gender in
Islam. Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University Press: New Haven 1991.
For a similar argument albeit with a different case (i. c. that of sati widow burning
in India) see L. Mani, Contentious Tradition. The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,
Berkeley: University of California Press 1989
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
51 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
posited claim that veiled women do not willingly or consciously subject
themselves to this sartorial practice. Such a claim usually relies on either a
notion of ‘coercion’ (forced veiling) or of ‘false consciousness’, both
pointing to the power relations in which veiling is embedded and which are
too often denied by its apologists or by covered women themselves.
While these argumentations turn out to be problematic for how questions
of power and regulation only seem to be implicated in the case of veiling
(and subsequently are considered to be absent in the cases of not-veiling
or unveiling, which are taken to be the reflection of an immanent and
autonomous will), they often do confront us with a discursive terrain in
which there is not much left but to argue and empirically demonstrate that
Muslim women who veil are ‘active agents’ of their destiny. It is this last
position that we wish to critically address, because it reiterates a
naturalized (humanist) understanding of the agent, or ‘autonomous will’,
that exists outside any power structure, and, concomitantly, participates in
keeping those other voices unintelligible, which do not align comfortably
with the liberal and secular grammar undergirding our prevailing
conception of agency.
By arguing that Muslim women are donning the veil as a result of
their own will, we reproduce the same agency model on which problematic
allegations of ‘false consciousness’ or ‘coercion’ rest, that is, one which
opposes the question of individual choices to that of power structures.
Such an understanding of agency has seriously been challenged by more
complex, post-Althusserian understandings of the relationship of the
subject to ideology and power.
In this perspective, any relationship to the
self is conceived as mediated by norms and power structure.
This means
that all ‘choices’ or bodily practices are considered as emanations of
prevailing normative ideals or regulative structures. Furthermore, by
A recent example of such a critique can be found in M. Lazreg, Questioning the Veil:
Open Letters to Muslim Women, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009.
S. Mahmood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton:
Princeton University Press 2005; S. Bracke, ‘Conjugating the Modern/Religious,
Conceptualizing Female Religious Agency: Contours of a ‘Post-secular’ Conjuncture’ in
Theory Culture & Society 25:6 (2008), 51-67.
See notably the reflection of Foucault on the question of ideology and his critique on
the way this concept presupposes a pre-existing immanent substance or conscious
subject who remains unaffected by normative structures, in M. Foucault,
Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York:
Pantheon Books 1980.
J. Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York:
Routledge 1990.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
52 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
emphasizing the ‘autonomous will’ of the women involved, we very much
rely on a liberal normative framework that takes a number of concepts
(such as the emancipation of women, the separation of church and state,
and freedom of speech) as the kernel of what counts as ‘modern’ or
‘European’. At the same time, it also takes for granted that the meaning of
these concepts is already known, and hence arrests their on-going
unfolding and puts a definite claim on their signification. The challenge
becomes then to put veiled women and the headscarf to the test of that
liberal framework in order to deliberate over their integration in the space
of citizens. While the defenders of the headscarf ban adopt a position
which views the hijab as intrinsically incompatible with this liberal
apparatus, advocates of the ‘right to veil’ will go at length to show why
veiled women in fact conform with these liberal requirements and can
perfectly integrate into the public space which is defined according to
these liberal terms.
At the heart of the matter, however, lies a critical question about
whether other trajectories, which do not necessarily fit the hegemonic
liberal grammar, can be rendered intelligible. While we have repeatedly
made strong arguments against the position that equals the headscarf to
women’s oppression, we have both felt uncomfortable adopting a liberal
vocabulary compelling us to argue that the headscarf is emancipatory. In
the first place, and almost evidently, even if the self-evidence of this point
repeatedly gets lost in the so-called headscarf debate, we subscribe to the
argument that a piece of clothing cannot in itself be oppressive or
The significance of the headscarf is always a matter of
context, and the context consists of interpretative frameworks, including
the frameworks of the agent herself as well as material conditions, and
their complex interplay. A more important contention, however, is that this
dominant framework does not enable us to address nor render intelligible
the various voices and trajectories that do not comply with such liberal
registers. For many of the women we have encountered during our studies,
wearing the hijab was not simply a matter of choice but in many cases also
framed as a ‘duty’ that was part of the virtuous dispositions they cultivated
in order to ‘please God’.
The question at stake is how to account for
T. Asad, ‘Trying to Understand French Secularism’ in H. de Vries (ed.), Political
Theologies. New York: Fordham University Press 2006.
N. Fadil, Submitting to God, submitting to the Self. Secular and religious trajectories of
second-generation Maghrebi in Belgium, K.U. Leuven: Unpublished Dissertation 2008,
S. Bracke, ‘Conjugating the Modern/Religious, Conceptualizing Female Religious
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
53 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
these voices in ways that do not disavow the narratives of ‘subjection’ as
merely an authorizing discourse masking the presence of ‘real agency’,
that take them as evidence for an absence of agency. We are confronted,
in other words, with the question of how to render those voices intelligible
according to their specific terms.
The seminal work of Saba Mahmood has offered a powerful critique
of how commonsensical understandings of agency suffer from the
teleology of liberal understandings of emancipation, as it seeks to locate
the political and moral autonomy of the subject in the face of power.
Despite the important insights it has enabled, Mahmood argues, this model
of agency also limits our ability to understand the lives of certain subjects,
in particular of women whose subjectivity has been shaped by nonliberal
traditions. The conceptual problem, to be more precise, lies in the
articulation of agency as ‘resistance to power’. In other words, if women’s
decision to wear the hijab should be seen as the exercise of their agency,
the evocation of women’s agency in its feminist understanding in the
same breath would suggest that such a decision should be conceived as
‘resistance to power’ and ‘emancipation’. The ‘is it oppressive or
emancipatory?’ question would then be settled in favour of emancipation.
Yet it is precisely this chain of associations that is problematic and urges us
to rethink the notion of agency.
Mahmood’s work takes up this theoretical challenge, and
reconceptualizes agency in terms of a capacity for action that historically
specific relations of subordination enable and even create. Agency
understood in this way puts in relief the capacities and skills required to
undertake particular kinds of acts (among which resistance) as well as the
recognition that modalities of acting are bound up with the historically and
culturally specific disciplines by which a subject is formed.
For this reason
the question ‘is the headscarf oppressive or emancipatory?’ rests on a
problematic notion of agency. The question itself seems to suggest that if a
woman is oppressed, she lacks agency; if her agency is recognized,
however, it situates her on the side of emancipation. The question
Agency: Contours of a ‘Postsecular’ Conjuncture’ in Theory Culture & Society 25:6
(2008), 51-67.
A. Hollywood, Gender, Agency, and the Divine in religious Historiography’ in The
Journal of Religion 84:4 (2004), 514-528.
S. Mahmood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton:
Princeton University Press 2005.
S. Mahmood, ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections
on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’ in Cultural Anthropology 6:2 (2001), 202-236.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
54 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
excludes the possibility of recognizing her agency, and yet acknowledging
that emancipation is significantly different from agency. Nevertheless,
when shunning or questioning this liberal conception of emancipation, the
arguments get drawn in the direction of ‘oppression’ − which already
reflects the hegemonic position on the matter, as the suggested symmetry
of the question indeed does not reflect a real symmetry in prevalent
opinions, and once more denies the agency of covered Muslim women.
However, defending the emancipatory nature of the headscarf as a tactic
for countering the prevalence of the oppression arguments ultimately fails,
precisely because of the tensions played out in the notion of agency. The
understanding of agency which informs this concept of emancipation is
already premised on the understanding that the subject needs to shed her
‘particular’ (cultural, religious, and so forth) attachments.
This essay has sought to examine the gendered contours of the
multicultural debate through an analysis of a specific case which has turned
into one of the main objects of contention in various Western European
countries: the headscarf. The purpose of this investigation has not been to
analyse the different arguments mobilized in these various debates, but
rather to offer a critical account of the frames organizing these debates,
and their epistemic effects on our understanding of the hijab as well as our
role as scholars and public intellectuals. We have examined how these
debates on the headscarf contribute to the delineation and articulation of
a secular understanding of the public space, by which the question of
secularism becomes redefined according to very distinctive and
exclusionary terms.
The headscarf controversies do not simply figure as a
means to account for the lived realities of veiled Muslim women, nor do
they simply address the practical concerns that may arise from this practice
rather, they are discursive moments through which the national
imaginary is constructed, through excluding this specific sartorial practice,
and its subjects. Secondly, our investigation has also brought us to question
the dominant frames through which the voices of veiled Muslim women
can be rendered intelligible, and especially the central position of the
language of rights. While not disputing the agency such frames enable, we
See also in this context S. Bracke & N. Fadil, ‘Tussen Dogma en Realiteit. Secularisme,
multiculturalisme en nationalisme in Vlaanderen’ in A. Karel. S. Bracke, B. Ceuppens, S.
De Mul, N. Fadil and M. Kanmaz, (eds.) Een leeuw in een kooi. De grenzen van het
multiculturele Vlaanderen, Meulenhoff | Manteau 2009, 93-110.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
55 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
have questioned its limiting capacities both in the semiotic fixation of the
hijab as well as in the particular model of agency undergirding this
language of rights.
The work of Mahmood convincingly questions the
ways in which an understanding of resistance, and by extension
emancipation, informs the prevalent concept of agency, and notably the
usage of it in feminist scholarship. In fact, a reference to emancipation
undermines the argument of the headscarf as emancipatory from the
outset, given that the prevalent notion of emancipation is premised on an
understanding that the subject needs to shed her ‘particular’ attachments,
which includes, until further notice, the headscarf.
These observations, consequently, bring us once again to Spivak’s
interrogation of the subaltern’s capacity to speak or to be more precise:
to make its voice heard. In considering the hegemonic structure of the
liberal grammar, the question remains how we may render those voices
intelligible within a discursive structure that not only defines what counts
as emancipation in liberal terms, but conceptualizes the very idea of a
‘willful subject’ through those terms. Rather than giving definite answers to
this weighty interrogation, we wish to conclude by a set of rhetorical
questions that make us reflect upon the various elements this interrogation
encompasses. A first concern is the process of ‘translation’ that seeks to
render those voices intelligible. What occurs in this process? What gets lost
and how are specific practices resignified? Which voices are observed and
why? How can we situate the liberal grammar in its specificity (as well as in
its potentiality) and the ways in which it becomes mobilized in exclusionary
terms, yet without ignoring the ways in which all forms of live are marked
by it? How can we avoid the essentializing trap of addressing and relating
to those non-recognized voices in idealized terms? Finally, what is the role
of critique, and how can we articulate a critique that refuses the trap of
new essentialisms or identity discourses, but provides a powerful tool for
the interrogation of the hegemonic structures of the liberal-secular
The premise of these questions, and indeed of this essay, is that
framing matters a great deal to how social reality comes into being. Our
participation in public debates has taught us time and again that this is not
a popular line of argumentation it does not easily fit into an appropriate
This observation parallels Saba Mahmood’s analysis of the performative effects of the
usage of the juridical language of anti-discrimination in the mobilization of Muslims
against offensive images during the Danish cartoon riots in 2005. For a fuller account
see S. Mahmood, ‘Religious Reason and Secular Affect. An incommensurable divide?’
in Critical Inquiry 35, (2009), 836-862.
‘Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?’
56 Religion and Gender vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), 36-56
sound bite nor is the point readily understood. Yet in the light of the ever
more nationalist, racist and exclusionary dynamics throughout the
European societies we are familiar with, we are increasingly convinced it is
one of the crucial critical tasks awaiting us. And to those who then ask for
alternatives ‘what questions should we be discussing if it is not whether
headscarfs are oppressive or emancipatory?’ – we answer that this must be
a matter of collective conversation in which excluded and marginalized
perspectives are highlighted. This point of departure of course raises many
other questions such as how such conversations are already structured
by power relations because of the way they are arranged and the notions
of speech they depend on. Yet these are the very questions and
conversations with which we believe it is important to engage.
... Colonized and racialized women's sexuality have been depicted as grotesque, excessive, and dangerous (McClintock 1995;Wekker 2016). Although Western representations of Muslim women specifically have a long history of the production of the Muslim/Eastern female as a figure of licentiousness (Kabbani 1984), since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the images of oppressed Muslim women became connected to a mission to rescue them from their cultures and religion (Abu Lughod 2013; Bracke and Fadil 2012). Thus, images of "the oppressed Muslim woman" are projected on female converts to Islam, especially on those who decide to veil. ...
... van den Brandt: Lost Daughters • 683 objects of concern. Given the fact that the figure of the oppressed Muslim woman is prominent across Western European public debates (Bracke 2011;Bracke and Fadil 2012), it may be no surprise when women converting to Islam are approached as objects of concern. The idea is that Islam "relegat[es] women to subservience, second-class status, a polygamous environment, and physical and sexual abuse" (Hadad 2006, 20). ...
This article draws upon and contributes to current discussions in the study of conversion, Muslims in Europe, and gender and emotion by taking media productions as an ethnographic starting point for analyzing the subject position of women who converted to Islam. In contemporary Western European contexts, the phenomenon of conversion to Islam evokes various affective responses, including bewilderment, concern, and fear. This article assesses the frames through which female converts to Islam are represented in the media and particularly explores the existing focus on mother and daughter relationships. Based upon an analysis of the emotions named and generated, this article argues that such affective framings contribute to the shaping of the subject position of female converts to Islam. It moreover demonstrates that emotions such as concern, sadness, grief, and fear are the result of, as well as constructively infuse, contemporary debates on religious and cultural diversity in the Netherlands in which Islam and Muslims are considered to pose a “problem” for Europe.
... Of course, the literature review at the beginning and throughout the research has been a very valuable source of information on structural dimensions as well. In particular, this includes the social context of how media portrays Islam (see e.g. S. Ahmed & Matthes, 2017;Said, 1997), the politics of "surveillance" of Muslims 16 , as well as public debates on veiling, sharia, radicalization and likes, and how these define the place of and for Islam and Muslims in society, in a strongly gendered way (Allen, 2014;Bracke, 2008;Bracke & Fadil, 2011;Fadil, 2009;Fernando, 2009;Moors & Salih, 2009;Wing & Smith, 2005). Sarah Bracke has for instance brilliantly described how "dominant discourses on the symbolic and material borders of the nation interpellate young Muslim women who often figure as the central 'subjects of debate'", "whose constituency and agency is always already informed by the terms in which [they are] addressed" (Bracke, 2011, p. 28), shaping the conditions of their ability of 'talking back', or pushing them to rather remain silent. ...
... At the same time, the minority situation of Muslim Diasporas in Europe and the growing tensions in public and political discourses about Muslim presence in Europe, in which discourses on gender equality (see e.g. Bracke & Fadil, 2011;Coene & Longman, 2010;Withaeckx & Coene, 2011) and the 'invisibilisation' of Muslim women through the banning of the veil (see e.g. Al-Saji, 2010) are central, obviously also influence how individual Muslim women may attempt to construct and reconstruct their subaltern racialized and gendered subjectivities. ...
Little is known about the (para)legal practices of European Muslims. This dissertation studies women’s rights in the context of family disputes within Belgian Muslim families. Based primarily on the analysis of interview narratives, its main goal is to better understand the emergence of rights consciousness in this context, so as to allow for an empirically grounded discussion of the relationship between human rights, gender and legal pluralism. The most important challenge in terms of human rights was found to be the non-take up of legally protected rights. The research found that the harmonisation of their multiple subject positions is a key factor enabling believing Muslim women to self-position as rights-bearing persons and make (legal) claims. This means that they need to see themselves not only as rights-bearing citizens, but also as good Muslimas, whose claims can be justified by religious norms. Access to (normative) discourses endorsing this view is crucial.
... Em vez disso, a sua missão era disseminar a "verdade judaizante" no mundo cristão. Trabalhos feministas anteriores já exploraram as maneiras pelas quais práticas modestas tornam-se meios para cultivar virtudes religiosas (Bracke & Fadil, 2011;Fader, 2009;Mahmood, 2005). No entanto, como demonstra o meu trabalho, evangélicas judaizantes não apenas se esforçam para reproduzir subjetividades judaicas por meio da modéstia, mas também almejam transformá-las e hibridiza-las com seus sistemas cristãos anteriores ao racionalizar a sua adoção de códigos judaicos com justificativas tomadas de códigos evangélicos. ...
Full-text available
Este trabalho baseia-se em uma etnografia com ex-evangélicas pentecostais que passaram por um dramático processo de judaização. Investiga as maneiras pelas quais essas mulheres, ex-cristãs e sem nenhum passado judaicos eu, adotaram tabus menstruais, restritos códigos de vestimenta - incluindo o uso de véus cobrindo a cabeça - e os rituais de judeus ultraortodoxos, ao mesmo tempo que ainda preservam princípios cristãos. Utilizando-se de teorias sobre mudança religiosa, dos debates contemporâneos da antropologia do cristianismo e de literatura feminista acerca do engajamento de mulheres com religiões patriarcais, este artigo examina a agência de mulheres em processos de conversão religiosa. Ao contrário das análises acadêmicas atuais que enfatizam a agência de mulheres pelo prisma da observância e corporalização (embodiment) de normas religiosas, o enquadramento policultural proposto neste artigo enfoca nas negociações, nas montagens culturais híbridas e nos “tormentos morais” imbricados em projetos de mudanças religiosas dramáticas. Essas percepções indicam a importância de se considerar as reflexões éticas, as reinterpretações e as acomodações culturais quando analisamos conversões religiosas.
... Although I will not elaborate thoroughly on policy discourses on diversity and inequality (see has mainly affected Muslim women. The main reason for this ban was to guarantee the 'neutrality of the public service', and it has sparked heated debates -both in the political and public sphere -which continue to this day (Bracke and Fadil, 2012;Brems et al., 2017;Saeys et al., 2019;Van Puymbroeck et al., 2014). In most Flemish primary and secondary schools, it is now also prohibited for either teachers or pupils to wear religious signs (whether attire or symbols). ...
Antwerp children grow up in a society characterized by unprecedented diversity. This diversity is strongly reflected in primary schools, where about three-quarters of the pupils have a migration background. At the same time, the city has a large ethnic gap in its poverty rates and life chances are unequally distributed along ethnic lines as well. Yet, while there is much research on the dynamics and impact of these inequalities, little is known about children’s perceptions and how they navigate such inequalities. Building on insights from cultural sociology and the ‘New Sociology of Childhood’, this dissertation aims to add to the literature on symbolic boundary making by examining how children negotiate ethnic and social class boundaries in their super-diverse environment. Drawing on three rounds of in-depth interviews conducted over a two-school year period with children aged 11-14, and the parents and teachers of some of them, I discuss how children express a great deal of agency as they negotiate the unequal environment in which they find themselves. They do not passively draw on existing public repertoires to make sense of this environment, but they actively choose, combine and reconstruct those symbolic boundaries, repertoires and identity categories that support both their own perceptions and their self-concept.
... El velo se ha considerado como un elemento simbólico que demuestra que las mujeres musulmanas están oprimidas y que el islam va en contra de sus propios derechos. Ante esto, varios estudios han cuestionado la supuesta oposición entre religión y las luchas de género apostando por visiones más complejas sobre la «agencia» de las mujeres musulmanas (Bracke y Fadil, 2011;Mahmood, 2011). No obstante, en el pensamiento feminista estas visiones alter-nativas siguen siendo minoritarias y el velo sigue ocupando un lugar incómodo en manifestaciones y discursos mayoritarios. ...
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In feminist research on religion, women and gender, the concepts of “lived religion” as well as “agency as doing religion” take a prominent place. Both include an intersubjective and mostly partial perspective. However, against the background of current developments concerning a global religious right, the paper argues for the inclusion of a critical perspective through the methodology of a double critique that includes both an analysis of power relations that marginalize women in religious groups and an analysis of women’s reproduction of gendered as well as racialized power relations. This argument is embedded in the complexity of post-secular feminist research including research on women, gender and religion, feminist critiques of secularism (and of anti-Muslim discourses), feminist, queer and trans theologies, and research on the religious right and their anti-feminist politics. The paper suggests to take feminist theologies and feminist spiritualities/religious practices as reference point for such an analysis.
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The present essay discusses Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? by focusing on the rendition of Islam as an axis of social agency in an environment that is excessively antagonistic of any version of Islam that falls outside the contours of the “liberal model” morphed by the Western creed of equality, liberty. Amal, the protagonist, embodies the dilemmas of choice and agency within an ideological rubric which disassociates such notions from faith-based convictions. The analysis relies on the notion of Muslim agency as theorized by Saba Mahmood, for whom the conscious formation of deeply rooted religious subjectivities is sidelined within the modern secular rubrics of self-formation. The article also draws on W.E.B Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness to highlight the extent to which Muslim female bodies are caught at the intersection between religion and nation. Hence, this essay discloses the challenges facing Muslim women whose exercise of agency is tied to their religious beliefs in a backdrop characterized by multicultural and secular economies. More particularly, it explores Amal’s religious tradition of habituated practices—such as wearing the veil in a hostile environment—as embodiments of autonomous agency.
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Introduction As part of the European Commission's 6th Framework programme, the Welfare and Values in Europe: Transition Related to Religion, Minorities and Gender (WaVE) project offers insights into the interaction of diverse value systems in local European settings and welfare regimes. In this context, this chapter presents an in-depth case study of a women's shelter in Sweden with a particular focus on Muslim women (including some references to Italy). The chapter also offers further insight into the complex relations between welfare, religion, gender, minorities and majorities. As highlighted by the WaVE research on European welfare regimes, welfare systems quite clearly exist in various religious contexts, but there is nevertheless an enduring idea of the state as ultimately responsible for the provision of human care. This assumption, however, is increasingly matched by an expectation that both profit and non-profit actors within civil society will assume a complementary role to public care provision, not least for vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers, new immigrants and victims of human trafficking (Bäckström, 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2014; Frisina and Cancellieri, 2012, p 233). Churches and religious organisations are among these actors, some of which engage in the care of female victims of domestic violence. For instance, the Catholic Church and its social arm Caritas provide support and shelter in both Italy (Frisina and Cancellieri, 2012, p 208) and Sweden. Another example is the Church of Sweden's diaconia institution Ersta Fristad. In addition to religious organisations engaging in the care of abused women, there are secular organisations that are active within the field. Several such organisations have developed their own feminist theory and practice, together with expertise on violence against women at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and religion. Prominent examples are Trama di Terre, established in Italy in 1999, and Terrafem, established in Sweden in 2000. These organisations have a long experience in dealing with multiple forms of oppression of minoritised women and the difficulties of building alliances within a minefield of identity and migration politics (Patel, 1999, 2013). Common to these organisations is the fact that they offer counselling and protected housing to women from a variety of backgrounds, while also promoting their particular expertise in offering care to those who are categorised as ‘ethnic’, ‘immigrant’ or ‘minority’ women.
In the Netherlands young Muslim women have increasingly begun to join women‐only kickboxing gyms. Dutch public discourse has taken notice, treating this phenomenon as a surprising development. The general assumption, in the Netherlands and in western Europe more broadly, is that women's sport is a form of secular, feminist empowerment; Muslim women's participation thus exemplifies the incongruence of Islam with the modern, secular nation‐state. Contesting this view, I show that young Muslim women who kickbox establish agentive selves by playing with gender norms, challenging expectations, and living out their religious subjectivities. Moreover, they disrupt western European parameters of secularity and religiosity. Their cloistered athletic activity is liberating, but not as expected and understood by mainstream public opinion. They approach their sport not as a quest for cultural integration or emancipation from their Muslim communities, but as a way of intertwining religious and secular forms of self‐improvement. [sport, embodiment, gender grouping, secularism, Islam, the Netherlands]
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This article is concerned with thinking transformations of the secular, and does so in relation to two theoretical terrains, while empirically grounded in ethnographies of Christian and Islamic pious women in the Netherlands. A first theoretical terrain under consideration is that of how the relation between modernity and religion is elaborated, notably in secularization theories, and how these established frameworks are challenged by a different kind of articulation between modernity and religion that I observed in narratives and practices of young Evangelical and Islamic women in the Netherlands. The article traces the contours of a `pious modern', showing how from a faith-centred perspective the modern can be incorporated and indeed produced. In this context, I argue that the way in which notions of modernization and secularization have been theoretically hinged on each other needs to be further revisited, and I propose to consider the `post-secular' as a new disarticulation between the modern and the secular. A second theoretical terrain concerns questions of agency and subjectivity. Here I trace how situating religious agency in its own grammar makes secular assumptions in social, critical and feminist theory visible, and generates different understandings not only of agency but also of notions such as autonomy, and the capacity to act and shape the world.
Politics of Piety is a groundbreaking analysis of Islamist cultural politics through the ethnography of a thriving, grassroots women's piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. Unlike those organized Islamist activities that seek to seize or transform the state, this is a moral reform movement whose orthodox practices are commonly viewed as inconsequential to Egypt's political landscape. Saba Mahmood's compelling exposition of these practices challenges this assumption by showing how the ethical and the political are indelibly linked within the context of such movements. Not only is this book a sensitive ethnography of a critical but largely ignored dimension of the Islamic revival, it is also an unflinching critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account. The book addresses three central questions: How do movements of moral reform help us rethink the normative liberal account of politics? How does the adherence of women to the patriarchal norms at the core of such movements parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory about freedom, agency, authority, and the human subject? How does a consideration of debates about embodied religious rituals among Islamists and their secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship between bodily form and political imaginaries? Politics of Piety is essential reading for anyone interested in issues at the nexus of ethics and politics, embodiment and gender, and liberalism and postcolonialism. In a substantial new preface, Mahmood addresses the controversy sparked by the original publication of her book and the scholarly discussions that have ensued.
In the last two decades one of the key questions that has occupied many feminist theorists is how should issues of historical and cultural specificity inform both the analytics and politics of any feminist project. Although this questioning has resulted in serious attempts at integrating issues of sexual, racial, class, and national difference within feminist theory, questions of religious difference have remained relatively unexplored in this scholarship. The vexed relationship between feminism and religious traditions is perhaps most manifest in discussions on Islam. This is due in part to the historically contentious relationship that Islamic societies have had with what has come to be called "the West," but in part to the challenges contemporary Islamic movements pose to secular-liberal politics of which feminism has been an integral (if critical) part. In particular, women's active support for a movement that seems to be inimical to their own interests and agendas, at a historical moment when more emancipatory possibilities would appear to be available to women, raises fresh dilemmas for feminists.' In this essay, I will probe some of the conceptual challenges that women's participation in the Islamic movement poses to feminist theorists and gender analysts through an ethnographic account of an urban women's mosque movement that is part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo, Egypt. In this movement women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds provide lessons to each other that focus on the teaching and studying of Islamic scriptures, social practices, and forms of bodily comportment considered germane to the cultivation of the ideal virtuous self.2 Even though Egyptian Muslim women have always had some measure of informal training in piety, the mosque movement represents an unprecedented engagement with scholarly materials and theological reasoning that had to date been the purview of learned men. Movements such as this one, if they do not provoke a yawning boredom among secular intellectuals, certainly conjure up a whole host of uneasy associations such as fundamentalism, the subjugation of women, social conservatism, reactionary atavism,
Comment Les Musulmans Sont-ils Devenus Des Musulmanes
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The Market for Identities: Secularism, Islamism, Commodities Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey or the work of E. Tarlo, 'Islamic Cosmopolitanism: The Sartorial Biographies of Three Muslim Women in London' in Fashion Theory
33 See for instance the work of Y. Navaro-Yashin, 'The Market for Identities: Secularism, Islamism, Commodities' in D. Kandiyoti and A. Saktanber (eds.), Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2002, 1-53, or the work of E. Tarlo, 'Islamic Cosmopolitanism: The Sartorial Biographies of Three Muslim Women in London' in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 11:2&3 (2007),143-172.
Agency: Contours of a 'Postsecular
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