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  • Veiled Threats?
  • Vrinda Narain (bio)
Hilal Elver, The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion is a compelling account of the ways in which, ironically, secular liberal democracies are now implicated in restricting women’s religious freedom by regulating what women can and cannot wear.1 Hilal Elver’s book is a timely and welcome intervention in the debate on the headscarf controversy. With a primary focus on Turkey, Elver considers the various aspects of the headscarf controversy: gender equality, religious freedom, multiculturalism, secularism, and state neutrality, evaluating the limits of toleration and the accommodation of difference in comparative perspective. Analyzing the legal treatment of headscarf-wearing women across Turkey, Germany, France, and the United States, Elver offers an insightful and empathetic understanding of the impact of the headscarf ban on women. She draws on human rights law, comparative constitutional law, and post-colonial legal theory to examine the perils of pitting women’s freedom of religion against state secularism. Ambitious in its scope and meticulous in its detail, this book will be of interest to legal scholars and human rights lawyers. It will also be of interest to those working in the areas of political philosophy, religious studies, multiculturalism, social diversity and the law, and public policy.

Giving a brief overview of the historical beginnings of the headscarf controversy in Turkey, the book provides a lucid account of the way in which the Turkish headscarf ban is embedded in the political struggles around nationalism, modernization, and the construction of Turkish identity. The author questions the dichotomous construction of secularism and religion, which might not be realistic given the social and cultural context of Turkey. The uneasy relationship between secularism and religion in Turkey and the attendant power dynamics underscore the need to problematize these dichotomies of secular/religious, modernity/tradition, and public/private. Elver critiques the use by Kemalist secularists of the trope of a modernizing Turkey contrasted with a traditional backward Ottoman Empire with Islam as its religion. This self-conscious project of modernization was also equally constructed [End Page 170] in opposition to Westernization. So it was in opposition not only to backward, uncivilized Islam but also against the lure of Western materialism and the intrusion of Western values. Ultimately, it was a Western-focused construction of a unique Turkish identity with a negotiation with Islam, on the one hand, and a resistance to Western decadence, on the other. She provides a compelling account of the constant challenge to this narrative and to the secularist project posed by the emerging new discourse of Islam, which was a counter-discourse to the official narrative of modernity and progress.

An important contribution of this book is its insight linking authoritarian stateimposed secularism with the rise of revivalist ethno-religious resistance movements, which can only have profound implications for the status of women. Elver points out that the possibility of Islamic modernism is an under-investigated concept in Western understandings of “Islamic” culture. Elver suggests the notion of multiple modernities and multiple secularisms as a response to the particular political and cultural context of Turkey. This is a compelling response to the otherising framework of Orientalism, and it challenges the perception that there is no possibility within the Islamic world for conversations about the compatibility of Islam and human rights. She rejects the simplistic “clash of civilizations” paradigm as she articulates how the imperial and religious traditions both remain constitutive of modern Turkish society.

This book has important implications for our understanding of democracy, citizenship, secularism, and the constitution of the public sphere. What we learn from The Headscarf Controversy is that the exclusion of women from the public space as unequal citizens is not an accidental occurrence but, rather, a deliberate constitutive act that has reproduced only the male subject as the citizen as well as a particular type of female subject regulated by law. The explicit exclusions of secularism in Turkey have had a profound impact on women. The main contribution of this book lies in Elver’s attention to the human cost of such restrictive legislation as the headscarf ban. Elver’s analysis...


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pp. 170-173
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