The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States

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Bozena C. Welborne, Aubrey L. Westfall, Özge Çelik Russell, Sarah A. Tobin
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , May
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Politics of The Headscarf in The United States, Bozena C. Welborne, Aubrey L. Westfall, and their co-authors demonstrate how headscarf use by Muslim-American women sheds light on American democratic pluralism. Whereas scarfed Muslim women are legally protected in the United States, the current Islamophobic atmosphere in the United States is a significant generator of social discrimination against them. When the headscarf functions as a symbolic boundary marker, according to the authors, discussion on the inclusion of covered Muslim women in the United States will continue. By paying particular attention to how Muslim-American women actively engage with politics and citizenship practices, this book offers notable results to interpret the role of religion in the current political environment in the United States. 

While a headscarf binds the Muslim community through identity construction, according to the authors, the headscarf as an identity marker engenders the social marginalization of covered Muslim women in the United States. In other words, covered women take the headscarf as a symbol to show their sense of belonging to the American community by underlining choice and agency; yet the practices of othering towards covered Muslim women creates a boundary between Muslims and others. While the concept of “boundary” seems precarious, stemming from its potential attention to the similarities and differences within a community, it serves one of the main purposes of the authors, as they focus on the impact of the headscarf on pluralism within American democracy. Given the authors’ focus on “boundary construction,” a reader may reasonably ask how the book would have developed differently if the authors had not looked at the headscarf through a perspective of symbolic boundaries. 

The discussion about the creation and elimination of social symbolic boundaries also sheds light on how Muslim-American women act like other Americans. As a response to the negative bias towards Muslim-American women, the authors underline the importance of engagement by Muslim-American women with social and political issues. Muslim-American women’s political participation is not independent of their understanding of Islamic scripture and ethics; indeed, the authors provide examples where Islam is used as a reference in political participation. However, despite the attempt of Muslim-American women to participate in political life in the United States, their representation within formal political institutions presents some obstacles and is limited. 

Given the current political climate, the discussion on informal and formal political participation of covered Muslim-American women in chapters 4 and 5 is remarkable. In general, Muslim-American women participate in politics in the same way as other Americans. In terms of formal political participation, for instance, the authors discuss change and reasons behind the political party affiliation of Muslim-American women, while they also examine how voting as a civic duty is a prevalent practice among Muslim-American women. As for informal political participation, the authors, for instance, take mosques as spaces for educational outreach and civic engagement which affect formal participation as well. Interestingly, whereas the homogeneity of social groups decreases the level of political participation, the diverse nature of mosques encourages political participation. In contrast to the diversity of the mosques, the authors underline how the practice of head covering could lead to the homogeneity of social groups, and hence be a deterrent for political engagement. The reader might be perplexed as they ponder the indirect connection between the headscarf and the homogeneity of a social group. 

The political participation of Muslim-American women is also in line with their understanding of citizenship, as discussed in chapter 6. Muslim-American women are conscious of their civic responsibilities and expect to exercise the rights associated with their citizenship. For instance, Muslim-American women expect from the government “respect for civil liberties (inalienable freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights), recognition of individual freedoms (these arise from the primacy of the individual), and the application of civil rights (the right to participate in civil and political life free from discrimination and repression)” (168). However, Muslim-American women do not think they are represented and fully included in the American political system or in the larger American community.

All this would imply that all diverse groups within the community need to be represented in political institutions, which would support American democratic pluralism. In this context, mainstream society needs to play a role in representing and including Muslim-American women. Those who are looking at the identity construction and citizenship practices of Muslim-American women will find this book useful for understanding the intersection of religion and politics in the lives of American Muslim women. This book also illuminates several research areas such as American Islam, Islam and politics, and Muslim women in a minority context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Esra Tunc is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bozena C. Welborne is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Smith College.

Aubrey L. Westfall is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wheaton College.

Özge Çelik Russell is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Gazi University.

Sarah A. Tobin is Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. She is the author of Everyday Piety: Islam and Economy in Jordan.


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