The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion

The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion

The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion

The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion


Hilal Elver offers an in-depth study of the escalating controversy over the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves. Examining legal and political debates in Turkey, several European countries including France and Germany, and the United States, Elver shows the troubling exclusion of pious Muslim women from the public sphere in the name of secularism, democracy, liberalism, and women's rights.

After evaluating political actions and court decisions from the national level of individual governments to the international sphere of the European Court of Human Rights, Elver concludes that judges and legislators are increasingly influenced by social pressures concerning immigration and multiculturalism, and by issues such as Islamophobia, the "war on terror," and security concerns. She shows how these influences have resulted in a failure on the part of many Western governments to recognize and protect essential individual freedoms.

Employing a critical legal theory perspective to the headscarf controversy, Elver argues that law can be used to change underlying social conditions shaping the role of religion, and also the position of women in modern society. The Headscarf Controversy demonstrates how changes in law across nations can be used to restore state commitments to human rights.


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there
is a field. I will meet you there.


Religious pluralism is one of the essential principles of constitutional democracies. Yet the ways in which Western democracies deal with Islamic practices raise a variety of issues that appear to erode religious pluralism. In recent years, there have been major public debates in several European countries about the acceptability of Islamic practices; specifically, the wearing of a headscarf, or hijab, by women and girls.

In the midst of a resurgence of religion, the challenge to accommodate Muslim practices seems greater and more urgent than ever before. It pervades virtually every aspect of modern life, from culture to civil society, from politics to identity, from security to conflict and discrimination. These issues are now being discussed with particular intensity in the United States, Europe, and almost all liberal societies.

The emphasis is on determining how to accept, accommodate, and tolerate Muslim religious observances in countries where secularism (or in France and Turkey laicite) and civil liberties are held to be as important as religious freedom. Devout Muslim women are subjected to serious restrictions, including the exclusion of some rights, not only in Western countries, where Islam is a minority religion, but also in Muslim countries, particularly in Turkey, and to a lesser extent in Azerbaijan, Tunisia, and Albania. In this book, legal, political, and social aspects of the headscarf controversy in constitutional democracies will be discussed from a comparative perspective.

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