The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion

By Hilal Elver | Go to book overview
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It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability
to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.
AUDRE LORDE, AMERICAN POET, Teacher, and Activist

Conceptual Confusion

In its multiple dimensions, the global headscarf controversy touches on fundamental issues of our time. Beyond questions of secularism and freedom of religion, vigorously invoked by both sides of the argument, the implications of the debate go well beyond posing a problem for Muslim pious women. The headscarf controversy has a profound symbolic value in its connotations for various conceptual issues such as patriarchy, feminism, gender equality, women’s rights, multiculturalism, racism, cultural relativism, religion’s place in democratic societies, modernity, secularism, liberalism, and constitutionalism.

Decision makers are influenced by these concepts and the societal stereotypes and political events of their particular countries. Therefore, very often, women’s specific conditions are undermined when state interests prevail. Global politics, state interests, constitutional values and the philosophy of a nation-state become stumbling blocks for women. A woman becomes an entity released from her particularity, no matter which country she lives in and whether she is a student at an elementary school or university, or a civil servant or teacher. As the significance and relevance of her subjectivity are lost on decision makers, these issues are often concealed behind one another, and the headscarf controversy ends up in the hands of the legal system. Judiciary or legislative bodies make decisions about women’s acceptability in schools or workplaces based on what they wear. This is itself enough to raise questions of gender inequality,


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