From the headscarf to the burqa : the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil

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Journal article

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Economy and Society

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burqa, deflection of theory, elongation of the political, headscarf, law, reciprocity, sociability, veil


Opposition to the burqa is widespread in Europe but not in the United States. What explains the difference? Focusing primarily on the French case and its Belgian facsimile, we seek to underscore the role of social theorists in legitimizing bans on the full veil. Ironically, this role has been largely disregarded by Anglophone theorists who write on the veil, and who often oppose its prohibition. This article suggests that Europe tends to be more repressive towards full veils because its political process is more open to multiple theoretical representations of the phenomenon of veiling. Conversely, the United States is more open to the provocative display of religious symbols in public because the political process is pre-structured by legal conventions that tend to filter out social theory. The push to ban the burqa in France principally derives from its brand of republicanism rather than being a product of racism and Islamophobia. Of particular significance in the French case is the emphasis on reciprocity as a political principle, a principle that is elongated into an ideal of sociability by French theorists in different disciplines. The arguments of these theorists are described, their rationale is explained and the impact of their intervention on the policy process is documented. The French case, where the popular press and legislature play a major role in shaping policy towards the burqa, is contrasted with that of the United States, where the judiciary, defending religious freedom, remains the most influential collective actor. Each country has correspondingly different attitudes to democracy. In France, the mission of democracy is to extend political equality to the social realm whereas in the United States it is religion that is prioritized so as to protect that which is deemed most sacred to the individual.



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Baehr, P., & Gordon, D. (2013). From the headscarf to the burqa: The role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil. Economy and Society, 42(2), 249-280. doi: 10.1080/03085147.2012.718620