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


Sarah Bracke ,

Catholic University Leuven, BE

Nadia Fadil

Catholic University Leuven, BE


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.

DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/rg.40

How to Cite: Bracke, S. & Fadil, N., (2011). “Is the Headscarf Oppressive or Emancipatory?” Field Notes from the Multicultural Debate. Religion and Gender. 2(1), pp.36–56. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/rg.40

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