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The Shifting Significance of the Halal/Haram Frontier: Narratives on the Hijab and Other Issues.


Allievi S. (2006), The Shifting Significance of the Halal/Haram Frontier: Narratives on the Hijab and Other Issues, in K. van Nieuwkerk (a cura di), Women Embracing Islam. Gender and Conversion in the West, Austin, University of Texas Press, pp. 120-149; isbn-13: 978-0-292-71302-4

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(The following text constitutes the final version sent to the editor: number of pages and notes DO NOT CORRESPOND to the published version; some other minor differences may be present in the text, compared to the published version)

The shifting significance of the haram/halal frontier

Narratives on the hijab and other issues

Stefano Allievi

The issue: why is the hijab still a problem?

The question of the hijab, the most common Arab name for what is often imprecisely called the ‘veil,’ as well as other gender issues,  has always been a very sensitive issue in European countries’ perception of Islam. It seems that, more than the issue itself, it is its symbolic perception that is crucial. The subject of women in Islam is in fact a burning issue and a source of polemics and mutual incomprehension.

At the risk of excessive simplification, two dominant positions can be distinguished in the public discourse. For the West, the Muslim woman is by definition downtrodden and the symbol of her oppression is the hijab, the veil, which she is forced to wear. For some Muslim women – and for Muslim men – it is Western women who are slaves to their obligation to be beautiful and available, on pain of being refused, and so it is they who are not free. Furthermore, they say, except for in certain situations the veil is a choice, not an obligation, as the West sees it.  The hijab is therefore a symbolic banner, waved on both sides by those who are either for it, or against it.

In addition, there is a kind of ’semantic war’ being waged about the hijab that seems to be of some significance. The Arab word hijab is sometimes translated with no great semantic accuracy, as in the case of the French foulard. But often the choice falls on stronger words: the French voile, the English veil and the Italian velo. The word veil in itself dramatizes the debate, referring at least implicitly and certainly psychologically to something that separates, conceals, masks, or blocks the view (not to mention the word chador, often used in Italian, erroneously but perhaps not innocently as an equivalent for the preceding terms). Even if, on a symbolic and etymological level, the word is polysemic and ambiguous, in this debate the veil is always ‘that which covers,’ not ‘that which re-veals’ (the Latin root of these words shows more directly the link between veil and revelation). The semantic aspect is thus not neutral, aseptic. It turns out to be strongly ideological. The choice of words used reflects the exact way we want to put the question, and also points to the responses we wish to receive.

A significant example comes from the main European comparative research project on moral and religious values, the RAMP Project (Religious and Moral Pluralism), of which the Italian part was recently published (Garelli, Guizzardi, Pace 2003). Among the questions asked in the RAMP questionnaire was the following: “All religions require the faithful to do certain things (like for example cover their face or head [and that in itself is not the same thing! (author’s note)] or they forbid them to do others…,” and interviewees were asked if they agreed “…that girls should go to school with their head covered, if that forms part of their religious customs.” In the Italian sample the “definitely don’t agrees” came to 66%, to which must be added those that are in a middle position on a scale that goes from 1 to 7. Let us imagine how different the result would have been if the question had been about Muslim girls’ right to wear a hijab (that is, a headscarf), not the obligation to do it.[i]

In Italian there is a proverb that says: ‘the tunic does not make the monk.’ Mutatis mutandis, a garment does not make a Muslim. But Muslims – and even more so Muslim women – are continually being faced by the problem of what they wear. If not through their individual will, through the social pressure of the surrounding Islamic community. If not through this, through the no less indiscreet pressure of non-Muslim society. Muslim women are questioned if they follow a presumed Islamic code of conduct and even if they do not. This is in certain ways paradoxical and so all the more significant to understand our way of perceiving Muslim women. Quite often it is surrounding society that creates the problem of the veil, and in a way ‘insists’ on it as part of the cliché of the Islamic woman. In a certain sense there exists a ’social demand’, which associates the veil with Islamic women, and so expects it, almost insists on it.

This can be seen in many debates on Islam typical of the French situation. From the first, in 1989, in the wake of the case of the three schoolchildren of Creil suspended from a state school, to the latest in 2003 more or less with the same dynamics. I give another example, in many ways paradigmatic, but in no way unusual. This is the case of Fouzia Ez-Zerqti, 39 years, a Moroccan and living in Padua. She has worked in Italy for many years, is emancipated, perfectly integrated and at the same time religious. A RAI TV (the Italian public television) team asked her for an interview on her experiences and the story of her life. The proposal was first accepted but then refused because RAI insisted on filming her wearing a hijab, which she had never actually worn. So in her place they interviewed and filmed another woman who responded more to the stereotype. On the contrary, a famous convert, Barbara Aisha Farina, a woman with radical ideas, always gets invited for interviews on television, which she does dressed in the Afghan burqa (Allievi 2003a). But then, from the point of view of the journalist, how can you tell if she is a Muslim (especially if converted) if she is not wearing a veil? This is just one example among many of social reproduction of stereotypes.[ii]

We may observe from these examples how issues related to the situation of women in Islam  and particularly those concerning the hijab, are raised and debated, from two different and often opposing points of view: first, that of society at large; and second that of individuals and Muslim social actors, including male and female converts. In the following section I shall analyze the point of view of society. The point of view of individual and social Muslim actors will be integrated into the point of view of converts. Converts refer to debates that are anything but new in Islam, and frequently conducted in many Muslim countries, yet they are obliged to compare them with their own European background. Before discussing these opposing points of view I shall outline diverse trajectories of conversion.

Trajectories of conversion

The greatest number of conversions to Islam is the result of something that has little to do with the search for spirituality, that is, marriage. As is well known, following the Islamic sunna, a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman without converting first. This reason for conversion may contradict the principle of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience as it has developed in the West, but it is not normally perceived as being particularly problematic by many of these candidates for conversion, who are often hardly religious at all, and consequently not particularly disturbed by their choice.

These conversions generally have no great impact on the lives of individuals and couples, and often not even on that of their offspring. Conversion under these circumstances is a means of attaining another goal (marriage), not a goal in itself. And it concerns men mainly, at least as a legal obligation. It may also concern women as a social obligation, for them to be accepted by the family of the Muslim partner, or by the ethnic and/or religious community to which he belongs, and whose judgment he might fear in case of exogamy.

In a recent work (Allievi 2002) I devoted a chapter to so-called ‘mixed’ couples, in which I distinguished not only between exogamy and endogamy, as it is usual to do, but also introduced the category of ‘selective exogamy, ’ which from another point of view might be called ‘enlarged endogamy’. It concerns, among other cases, couples in which ethnic and cultural exogamy is in some way ‘compensated for’ by a religious endogamy. In those cases in which one of the two partners is a convert, he (and more frequently she) is ‘pushed’ towards conversion through social and psychological pressure.

However, other trajectories to conversion, which, like the previous ones, may be called ‘relational,’ even if far less numerous, are those that have the greatest impact: on the lives of individuals, and also on the life of Islamic communities in Europe. In this list can be included the ‘discovery’ of Islam by meeting Muslim believers, while as a tourist or on a business trip to Muslim countries, or by meeting an immigrant in Europe and possible falling in love with him or her.

A different model of conversion is that of ‘rational’ conversions.[iii] We can refer to intellectual conversions – ‘cold’, so to speak – which are due to reading the Qur`an, even by chance, for all sorts of reasons and in the most diverse situations: either because it is received as a gift, as happened to one of the most well-known European converts, former pop singer Cat Stevens, who became Yusuf Islam, or because it was found in the prison library. Others have become acquainted with Islam through books on Islamic mysticism, especially Sufism, which have attracted a wide Western readership.[iv] Books that have influenced conversions are those of traditionalist authors such as René Guénon, Fritjof Schuon, and Titus Burckhardt, all have become Muslims. Both the intellectual way and the mystic – more frequently, probably, the second, at least in my own experience – are followed by large numbers of women.

Sufism is, however, a specific way of entering Islam, or rather a special facet of it, and leads to embracing Islam through the role of tariqa, not necessarily and not often connected to the ‘Islam of the mosques,’ where immigrants of Muslim origin can be found.

For many converts the background of conversion is political, both (even extreme) right and left. Islam, the religion of praxis that does not on principle distinguish between the ‘city of men’ and the ‘city of God’ just prefers to overlay them, and seems to be an ideal way of ‘spiritualizing’ a militant commitment that previously was only social or political. It is no accident that we find these converts in the leadership and at the intermediate levels of many Islamic associations of different European countries, in mosques, and in promoting political initiatives such as requests to be recognized by the state as a minority. In short, these converts are normally closely in touch with the Islam of immigrants.

In my research,[v] however, this way is much more – if not exclusively – a male trajectory. This is probably due to general problems of acceptance of women as part of the leadership of mosques and associations – particularly, but not only, where first generations of migrants are concerned.

Conversion, as entry into another culture and another religion, presupposes strong moments that symbolically sanction the conversion itself, and reinforce its significance as a radical change and clean break with the past. It is a process that in the definition of conversion proposed by William James (1902), with a few literary archaisms and yet widespread in the self-perception of converts, for whom it is always a ‘novelty,’ is exemplified as passing ‘from the darkest night to the most brilliant light of things.’ This ’stepping over the threshold’ symbolizes and means ‘joining a new world’ (van Gennep 1909).

The first and principal rite is obviously the shahada, the public declaration of faith. But others take on significance, from the point of view of social recognition, that is almost equally important, and whose role and its way of being played are interesting One of these we could summarize with the Latin motto Nomen omen – the name ‘determines’ the man (and the woman). Let us see what this means for converted men and women.

The choice of name, in the case of Islam contextual to the shahada, is perhaps the most important and symbolically characteristic, also because it changes the identity of the person in some way – a typical ‘bridge-burning event’ (Hine 1970). Not by chance it is often connected to entry into a religion but also to the taking up of a commitment and a greater responsibility inside that religion, as is the case for instance of Christian monks right up to the Pope. And again, nomina sunt numina, naming things means bringing them into existence, giving them meaning.[vi] In relations with Muslims this process takes place especially where it is decided to highlight this choice by making it public. It could also have a public sanction in some official way even on the bureaucratic level with the request by individual converts and Islamic organizations of various European countries to be able to change names even on ID documents. That would make the Islamic religious affiliation visible also on the level of personal details in registry offices, and incidentally it would also be a guarantee of non-return, almost an insurance policy for the community that neo-Muslims will not change their minds, or will anyway have more difficulty in doing so. In the end, a sign of weakness, more than a sign of power.

Changing names is not actually sunna, an obligation. In Islamic tradition the story of the delegation sent by Muhammad to the Coptic governor of Egypt to convert him to Islam is well known. The governor declined the offer, but sent numerous gifts to Muhammad, among which two Coptic slaves, Mariya and Sirin. They both converted to Islam, and the first became the Prophet’s concubine, but kept their original names. Besides, in Islamized countries what prevails is the traditional custom: if Arab Muslims obviously have Arab names, that is, also Qur`anic, as the revealed Qur`an is in that language, elsewhere there is normally a co-existence of Islamic (Arabicized) traditions and pre-Islamic ones in the local language. Whereas in the West, and especially with converts, the stakes of the choice of name seem to have become symbolically higher: an element of distinction assumed and to a certain extent displayed. At times seemingly more ‘against’ something (surrounding society, Christian tradition, etc) than simply ‘for’ something.

Men and women converts are careful, more than for instance Arabs or other born Muslims, to take Islamic names, not only traditional Arab names. In this case it really is a case of nomina sunt numina. This is why the most common names start with the prefix `Abd (servant) followed by one of the 99 names for Allah, or prophets named in the Qur`an, or historical figures particularly famous from the Islamic point of view, such as the first four Caliphs called the rashidun, the well guided, or naturally the seal of prophecy itself, Muhammad. As for female converts, Aisha, the favorite wife of the Prophet, or Khadija, his first wife, or Fatima, his favorite daughter, are popular names.

The ‘naturalness’ of the choice of an Islamic name is so obvious that aspiring converts are not even informed that it is optional, not an obligation; some only becoming aware of this for the first time after our questions. Some have repented their choice and tend to make less use of the Islamic name or to abandon it.  Others have put up with it, almost a kind of compulsory toll, being sacrificed on the altar of good socialization with original Muslims. Finally others, and they are in a certain way the newest cases, belonging to more recent conversions, have had the social courage to reject this path and keep their original names.  With regard to the naming of children, some converts have chosen the practice of a double name, which allows a double appropriation. Besides changing names, changing appearance is a central and controversial identity issue.

The point of view of the host society: hijab as a public manifestation of individual rights?

The hijab is an important symbolic issue for a non-Muslim society. How the hijab is perceived by society at large, the media, the religious milieu, etc., marks a difference in its symbolic acceptance that is also related to the acceptance of Islam itself. Many studies have already analyzed this aspect of the question so I will here just recall some ‘highlights’ from debates in various European countries (see Maréchal et. al. 2003).

It is a common statement – often made by Muslim women and women converts – that just the appearance of the hijab in the public space can ‘produce’ reactions like insults, protests, or simply insistent curiosity. But it can also produce forms of intra-Muslim tension, which are not usually noted in the arena of social representation by the media and other professional observers. Actually many issues related to women’s condition must be included among these intra-Muslim tensions: between ethnic groups, between different nationalities, but also, more commonly, between urban and rural background populations, between levels of education, different opinions and attitudes of mind (more liberal or traditional, more or less militant), but also between men and women, and between immigrants and converts.

We might say that the debate over the hijab, as a state affair, is essentially a French problem. Yet, it has taken on more universal connotations through specific controversies, which have been solved in different ways, depending on the country and the particular moment. Everyone who has had the opportunity to hold courses, seminars or lectures on Islam knows just how sensitive the question of the hijab is: almost a touchstone for reflection on the presence of Islam in the public space. But everyone who has had experience of fieldwork among Muslims – and in particular converts and, especially, women – knows well how significant this issue is to them as well.

As regards the host societies, this is surprising, if examined as a principle, because the question of freedom of dress should not even be raised in the West, except possibly within the limits of respect for decency and its legal consequences.

In a certain sense, the question of the hijab is a non-issue, or an issue without a real content. Most probably, what is real in this debate is not its object at all. The most well-known debate, in Europe – which has been the paradigm of many others –, sprang from the decision not to let three pupils wear the hijab in a lycée in Creil, following the introduction of a new school rule, in the autumn of 1989, at the beginning of the new school year. This was also the year when France was celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution and its principles, which probably had something to do with the sensitivity around the issue. This led to a major debate all over France and elsewhere. It  went through three main phases. The first was in 1989 and 1990, with the events of Creil; then again in 1994-1995, when, following this long discussion, Minister Bayrou’s statement of September 1994 condemned ‘ostentatious signs’ of religious affiliation, while however accepting ‘discreet’ ones. In between we can record a long process of official and unofficial positions, ranging up to the highest authorities of the state, administrative decisions at all levels up to the Council of State, consultations, debates in the media, political controversy and electoral interests. But the case was also revived more recently, in 2003, when Minister Sarkozy confirmed, in a statement at the Congress of the Islamic organization UOIF (an official presence that was in itself a première) that wearing the hijab would continue to be officially banned. The case continued through October, this time at a lycée at Aubervilliers, where the same story was repeated. Ironically enough, in this case of expulsion of two sisters – neo-Muslimas recently converted, daughters of a Jewish non-believing father and a Catholic-raised non-believing Kabilian mother – immigration was not involved.[vii]

The discussion also had the militant aspects of an ideological battle, making some observers speak of secular fundamentalism (républicain, in French terms). Most of the magistrates involved ruled that the girls and their motivations were in the right. In some places, contorted and at times surprising compromises were sought, requested by some headmasters as gestures of goodwill, such as the suggestion to tie the hijab at the back instead of the front, seriously made by a headmaster in Colmar, while elsewhere the hijab was forbidden during lessons but allowed on the school premises (Strassburger 2000). Elsewhere again the solution found was to authorize the veil only in the presence of male teachers. Quite a paradoxical and sometimes surrealistic discussion! Furthermore, it is interesting to note that whilst French laicité declared war on the hijab, French Catholics accepted some of the girls who had been excluded from state education into their schools, so that, in an interesting reversal of positions, religious figures of different faiths accused laicité, in its French form, of sectarianism.

There have been similar cases in many other European countries, but not with the same ‘nervous’ exacerbation: the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, etc (even though, following the French example, things seem to be under change). And in some countries, such as Great Britain, this is not a real issue. This detail is not at all insignificant, and in many ways revealing. What creates the problem is not necessarily the hijab in itself, but the way it is perceived. The role of context – a basic statement for every sociological assumption – is decisive. To give one example: the same argument French Minister of the Interior Sarkozy chose to justify the banning of the hijab for ID photographs (Catholic nuns are also forbidden to wear their veils) works the other way round in other contexts. In Italy the same argument (the fact that Catholic nuns are allowed to cover their hair in ID photographs) has been used to allow Muslim women to do likewise. In both cases, the basic reference was the same: the principle of equality before the law, and of equal treatment of citizens. The difference was in the law.

It is to be noted that the hijab can in some cases become an element of integration of the presence of Islam in the public space. It happened in the case of Nabila Benaïssa, the sister of Loubna, a little girl murdered by a pedophile in Belgium. The popular mobilization around the case and the protests against the shortcomings and covering-up in conducting the investigations were enormous, leading to the immense ‘Marche blanche’ in Brussels in 1997. The figure of the young Nabila, displaying her Muslim identity with simplicity and discretion (she always appeared wearing the hijab), and showing her perfect social integration (speaking perfect French and with her calm reasoning), made a strong contribution towards creating a less offensive and threatening, ‘polite’ so to speak, perception of Islam. The drama helped to trigger off a process that on that occasion I was tempted to call “assimilation through grief” (in Dassetto 1997).

On the other hand, the debate over the hijab, and the hijab itself, is often the catalyser of what could be called ‘reactive identities’ on both sides. On the side of the host society, the reaction to the hijab allows hidden or ‘sleeping’ identities to emerge, as is the case if, faced by ‘them’ (the hijabi women and the appearance of the hijab in the public space), an ‘us’ starts to be evoked by the intervening parts (we women, we Westerners, we Christian civilization, we the secular state, etc.). On the Muslim side, the reactive identity can be seen when the hijab becomes a symbolic banner raised in order to counter society and its symbols, especially in certain militant milieus. It can be especially observed among women who were not used to wear the hijab in their country of origin, deciding to do it in the host country – but also among converted women.

The point of view of converts. Narratives and rationalizations of the hijab

A second approach to the question seems to have been less studied and analyzed. Fewer studies have in fact been conducted on the weight of social practices concerning the hijab and their meaning inside Muslim communities. For instance: how are converted women seen, and how differently, if they do or do not wear the hijab, especially in mosques and in their associated milieus? What is the meaning of this practice, for the women involved, in terms of acceptance of the mainstream local Islamic culture? Is the hijab necessary for women to be accepted by the (mainly male) Muslim social actors? And what is its role in terms of self-positioning towards non-Muslim society?

If we specifically examine the differences between narratives and rationalizations of the hijab, and more in general the haram/halal frontier, with special reference to women, offered by male and female converts, we are tempted to look for certain specific features. Both male and female converts have in common the fact of not being related to any ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ interpretation of Islam, a situation that is specific to immigrants. But their arguments often are related to ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ interpretations of Islam. They necessarily have to be rooted, in order to become accepted references, in Islamic traditions, and more specifically, those of the community to which they refer (often a local and in some way ethnically characterized Muslim community, such as a mosque or the zawiya of a Sufi tariqa).

Nevertheless, the fact of being men or women often puts them in a different position, and it is interesting to understand how and why, and what the gender consequences are. I will attempt to do this, by comparing rationalizations about the hijab and other gender aspects proposed by some converted men and women.

The question of the hijab is part of a more general issue: the haram/halal frontier. Haram and halal, the pure and impure, the licit and illicit: these are the categories on which the thinking, juridical more than theological, of Islam rests. That is on the criteria of the separation of good and evil, and the recognition and separation of Muslims in respect to the rest of the world. As noted by Weber (1922), the personality of Muhammad

is free from any kind of ‘tragic’ sentiment of sin – a character that has remained fixed in orthodox Islam. ‘Sin’ appears there as a ritual impurity, or as religious sacrilege (such as polytheism), or disobedience to the positive commandments of the Prophet, or class unworthiness for violation of customs and proprieties.

An attitude that is considered typical of Islam, and similar to Orthodox Judaism (taken up in the distinction between sacred and profane proposed by Durkheim. But, as Durkheim (1912) himself implies, it is present inside almost all religious traditions, to a greater or lesser degree, in that they are immediately comprehensible and hence well-known criteria of recognition of the goodness of one’s conduct and the laws one can and must follow. Laws which, however unmotivated or irrational, offer an easy and immediate guide: orthopraxis knows immediately where to seek inspiration and who if anyone to seek advice from. In case of doubt there is always the ultimate instance of conscience; but first, and it is a particularly important fact for Islam, there are the ulama, the imam, those who know a little more, books, and second to last the jurists, some of whom (if we think of Yusuf al-Qardhawi, or for the younger generations Tariq Ramadan) are real pop (in the sense of popular) stars.

A logic and a practice, just mentioned, immediately comprehensible and absolutely identifiable with for a Muslim, even an immigrant. But for a convert? Is it accepted or rejected, or possibly mediated and accepted with reservation? And if it is accepted, is it a cultural acceptance or, at most, a response to a psychological need, a lightening of the anxiety of individual responsibility? And how much does the acceptance of a convert “cost”? Because there is a price to pay, as Primo Levi (1986) noted: “Changing a moral code is always costly: all heretics, apostates and dissidents know that”. The behavior declared (but also that which is observable) definitely goes in the direction of acceptance of revealed law as religious obligation; but in a certain sense with reserve, with mediations and nuances that, at least in part, lead back to the internal forum again, to the conscience. The law is not to be discussed, it must be accepted, better still we must become one with it. In its application however, it can be mediated with less severity, usually more severe in the initial phase of conversion, and more tempered in the more mature stages.

For men the problem is less explicit, and above all has much less to do with religion in the strict sense. As underlined by our interlocutor, responsible for an important Islamic center, whose beard is admittedly quite short, “it is not written anywhere that I have to dress like the Prophet and wear my beard long like him. If I do, it will be to my merit, but if I don’t it will not be a demerit.” There are no real religious obligations except possibly the recommendation on the part of some hadith not to wear gold, silk and precious garments, as part of that sobriety and measure that is typical of Islam. Apart from that there is only the possible literalism, at times even fanatical, of some contemporary ‘exegete.’

However the question of the Islamic veil is more problematic.[viii] The hijab is in fact a symbolic wager of a certain importance: both for Muslims, among Muslims so to speak, in establishing the boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the host society as such. Muslim men and women face this problem in various ways. In synthesis, the difference is between a literalist attitude and acceptance of Arab tradition (in other Islamic areas the veil is rare or unknown, or only a militant symbol), and a ‘modernist,’ interpretative attitude, with a symbolizing tendency.

It is particularly difficult in the case of the hijab to speak of a prevailing attitude. For some it is a symbolic act, which is followed more or less willingly, but anyway without problems, in the case of prayer in the mosque  and other possible encounters of an Islamic character. For others refusal prevails, which is asserted discreetly and never too strong since the veil is maktub, that is, ‘it is written’ in the Qur`an, and so it is best to leave it all. Refusal also marks the difference between acceptance of the original customs and a more spiritualizing and ‘Western’ interpretation, if not pure and simple disinterest. For others again it is a banner of an identity. And, in the case of men, perhaps a conditio sine qua non for matrimony, for the search for a wife: in the marriage columns that can be found in European Islamic magazines and the Internet, there is an extremely high percentage of men, immigrants but also often converts, who specify that they want a hijabi wife, veiled.

As it is not a question of personal experience (a man can have his opinions, but it is not he that wears the hijab), the male arguments probably reflect a greater degree of abstraction and intellectualization, both in the case of acceptance (or obligation) and that of refusal (or of a silent freedom of choice). This is how one of our interlocutors, Abdul Hadi, motivates his position, quite common also among women:

We find ourselves faced by the conflict that exists between the spirit and the letter of something. If the veil as a precept is to have a function, it is not to attract the gaze of men; but, in an environment like the West, a woman, especially if she is a Western woman who has decided to wear a veil, ends up by becoming the center of attention, especially if she lives in an environment in which there is not a minority presence of a Muslim religious community for which, let us say, this behavior has become habitual. This woman walks along the road and becomes the center of attention. So in this case a desire to stick to the letter produces an effect that is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the norm. For some converts who have decided to wear a veil a certain dose of exhibitionism plays a very important role. The aim of converting to Islam is not to make women pass from non-veil to veil: it is to teach women and men a certain morality and a certain kind of behavior in relations with other human beings. The fact that originally, in the environment in which Islam was born, this precept ended up in the veil does not change the fact that it is necessary to proceed and maintain this attitude even in the face of changed conditions. This is the risk that there is in all readings of the sacred text that stop at the letter.

Female arguments appear more interior and more centered on experience, both if they go in the direction of acceptance, and if they are oriented on the refusal of the veil. It is interesting to listen to some of the voices of the converted, because their arguments on wearing the hijab or not, do not belong to their ethno-cultural legacy and are perhaps more authentically religious. Aisha, a militant convert, summarizes all the reasons for wearing the veil: the identity banner, protection, self-control, formalization of belonging, sanctioning deviant behavior, even practicality in an Islamic key:

Then one day I decided that I had to wear the veil. It’s not so much the veil in itself, but I think they notice you more if you have a veil. However, apart from the fact that it is written in the Qur`an, I think the veil protects you, because that way everyone knows that you are a Muslim – apart from those that think that I am a gypsy. So everyone knows my religion, which means they treat me accordingly, or at least they should. However, at least inside the community, they treat me like that and then, it sort of helps me to feel inside me. For example, now that I go around in a veil I know that I have to behave accordingly, because I am like a walking symbol.

And then it’s true that there are people who are rude to us in the street. I find that distressing, I don’t like it, really. At times I’m upset; sometimes in the course of the day so many things happen that I feel like crying even in the street and say, I can’t take any more, why can’t they leave us alone?… But it’s as if there is protection all the same. I was reading the history of the Jews and the kippah: the reason they wear it is to keep Heaven separated from Earth… that is, to remember that they are subjected; and as in Islam aslama means ‘to subject,’ it’s the same thing. It’s like a sacralization of the whole person.

The ‘identity banner’ dimension is here taken in its strongest terms. To the point that Aisha has become a public figure after an interview in Corriere della sera, the most important Italian newspaper, and following on this has been invited by various women’s magazines and for some television appearances for having insisted on having her photo in a hijab on her identity card and passport. She is the reason for the Ministerial circular which allows it to be worn, as for nuns. Today Aisha, even more militant and radical, after marrying in a polygamous marriage (not officially, of course) with a combative Senegalese imam, and after creating a newspaper with the programmatic title of al-Mujahidah (‘The Woman Combatant’), gives interviews only dressed in an Afghan burqa, and from under it expresses support for the Taliban and also Saudi Arabia (the only real Islamic regimes in the world, in her opinion), Bin Laden and the Palestinian shahid.

The need to show and identify with one’s community of reference is often present. Exemplary in this sense is the attitude of Nura, another convert, and an example of the misunderstandings that the veil can create. To start with the time that the veil was the reason for her being dragged into the Questura, the Italian police station:

Yes, and… I really enjoyed myself, al-hamdulillah, because they were carrying out a swoop and they got me, and they were nasty. They asked: ‘Have you got a permit of sojourn?’ I looked at the policeman and said: ‘No,’ but actually they didn’t even give me time to speak; they grabbed me and took me to the police car. I had never been in a police car before – they drive like crazy, I was a bit scared, these rough people … and so I found myself at the police station. They took me up, dragging me by the jumper, and took me upstairs. At a certain point a policeman sent me to another person, who does the registering of names. So I gave my name, date of birth and everything. And so we went to the Commissar, he was given this sheet of paper: so there we were standing in front of him and the Commissar said: ‘Who is this lady M.F., born in …?’ I looked at him and said ‘Me.’ ‘Who? You? But… you’re… Italian!’ And the Commissar said: ‘But why didn’t you say so before?’ I said: ‘Look, you asked me for my permit of sojourn. It’s obvious that I haven’t got one. But if you had asked me for ID, I would have said OK, here it is! You can’t treat people like this!’

This was not an isolated episode for Nura:

At times on the bus it really came to violence because of my refusal to admit to being Italian. Because they took me for a Moroccan. One person said to me, ‘Move over, Moroccan!’ and gave me a punch, literally. I said to him: ‘Who do you think you are, you bully, who do you think you are? Do you really think you can shove people around like that even if there’s plenty of room?’ So one of them gave me another punch and said: ‘But you’re not… Moroccan.’ And I said: ‘Yes, yes, I am.’ In that moment I insisted that I was Moroccan; never would I have admitted for any reason in the world that I was Italian.

For Shahida on the other hand the veil is inscribed in a sort of family continuity:

I always used to wear one, ever since I was small. We went to church and wore a veil. I lived in the country, down in Potenza [in Southern Italy] and in the summer period it was boiling hot, and then there was the cutting of the corn, the harvest, we were always out, around, there was the threshing with us all around. Incredibly hot, and so we wore a scarf over our heads, and so we had it on all the time …

Q.: It was like going back to your childhood?

A.: Yes, it was a return, practically, yes. A headscarf has never been a problem for me; and anyway I don’t like luxury, nor showing off, so I don’t want to wear things to make people look at me.

If for Shahida it is a return to the past, for other women it is something new and problematic. Fatima, whose parents separated, lives with an elderly granny. She followed her granddaughter’s gradual approach to Islam closely and with a certain apprehension. Fatima, much better than anyone else, stressed how much the problem is not so much the conversion of the heart (the ‘circumcision of hearts’ of which St. Paul speaks), as the complex, intrusive and above all over-visible ‘contour’ that accompanies it (the ‘circumcision of the body,’ to remain inside the Pauline metaphor):

When I put on the veil I was practically thrown out of the house. Just as well it was August, so I took it as an opportunity to go on holiday. Jokes apart, I stayed with friends for a while. You know, I live with my grandmother, and my grandmother naturally with her mentality – mind you, I’m not blaming her – was upset by what had happened. The family, it’s not that they have anything against Islam, it’s the veil, that is, the outward show, the fact that everyone knows that I am a Muslim.

Other converts however take a position of doubt, of individual refusal. This position hardly ever extends into a general refusal, even less a condemnation.

Zeynab has interiorized its meaning:

I’ve changed in these things, in this way of thinking: that’s why I’m not interested in them any more. Even if I admire those sisters who are trying to affirm their identities, wanting a photo in a hijab on their identity cards, I understand: you have to be able to choose…

Q.: – Do you understand it and admire it or do you understand it and that’s all?

A.: – No, I say that you have to be able to choose, you have to be able to have the right to pray in the work place, if you want your photo in the hijab you must have the right to have it.

Q.: – But you don’t feel the need for it…

A.: – No, I don’t feel the need. I can’t wear the hijab in my office, I have never asked but I know I could never do it. Anyway I’m not interested in these outward signs; I have realized that the hijab is the symbol of a kind of behavior… In my opinion that’s all it is: like lots of other things, like the rules for starting to walk with your right foot, using your right hand, according to me they are just symbols.

Maryam thinks the same, with some timidity in front of those who wear the veil, and so looks for more social reasons:

Each one of us must be ourselves, even in Islam, and live our lives a bit … in our own way. Even if there are rules, and I know perfectly well that there are. Me, for example, I don’t wear a veil outside the mosque, and Muslim brothers often make observations on this. But seeing that in Islam the finest thing we can discover is exactly this direct relation with God, without intermediaries, so there is no priest who absolves you and… So, I know perfectly well that there are just me and Allah before me. Allah knows the reasons why I don’t wear the veil because … I also think that some things were introduced during the period in which the Qur`an came down to us.

Q.: – So it is really your choice, this; I mean, it’s not a transition stage.

A.: – No, I don’t know if I’ll ever wear it. I’ve got no preconceptions against the veil because I know anyhow that it’s a beautiful thing, because when you put it on for prayer that’s when you have the real value of the veil, in that moment. But for the rest of my life, no, because I live in Italy, I’m not living in a Muslim country, where everything would help me to live my Muslim being.

More widespread among Muslims women by birth, is a defensive position that corresponds to that of Cardinal Bellarmino in Brecht’s Galileo, who, faced by the hypothesis that it is the sun, and not the earth, that is at the center of the solar system, is worried by the fact that if we start by putting one little thing in doubt the whole edifice will then collapse. In sociological language it is the position stated by Berger on more than one occasion, when he theorizes the fundamental role of ‘plausibility structures’ in helping to uphold one’s religious faith. Plausibility structures are even more important as religious pluralism increases and hence as society does not ‘confirm’ for us the evidence of our faith and our belonging, especially if we belong to a minority. They are even more important if we have been converted to another religion, which explains the tendency of many neo-converts to marry people belonging to the new religion that they have embraced.

Berger maintains that for a religious faith to be upheld in a person’s conscience, it must form part of the plausibility structure that is peculiar to that very faith. Which means, above all, that in the social environment of that person there must be a community continuously professing this faith. “It will be rewarding if those who have the greatest emotional importance for the person we are speaking about (that is, those who George Herbert Mead called the ‘significant others’) belong to the community that professes this faith. It will not count very much if the person’s dentist is not Catholic [in our case Muslim, (author’s note)], but everything will certainly be better if his wife and most intimate friends are” (Berger 1969).

Yet, the position taken by many women converts as well as women of Muslim origin not to wear hijab is also important. Of these, however, less is said for this precise reason since they are not noticed. Some reached this decision after having thought about it, even if perhaps fleetingly; others did not even consider it a problem.

The question of the hijab, in any case, can be considered only as a case study of a more general problem, which should be related to other issues concerning the haram/halal frontier, particularly relating to the behavior allowed between men and women. We will see how converts deal with this.

Women and the haram/halal frontier: a further comparison

The pure-impure dichotomy touches upon many aspects of relations between the sexes. A frequent problem, and one that is widespread throughout society, as it is a question of a sign actually preceding or at least accompanying knowledge of someone, is shaking hands. The problem is that whereas a Muslim man knows perfectly well that it is not done, a non-Muslim usually knows nothing of these practices, and so his ignorance can be a source of misunderstandings. Latifa, a shi`ite convert says:

If I am talking with a person and this person wants to shake my hand, I can’t say that I can’t give him my hand because Muslims cannot touch. Because it will seem that that is all Islam is interested in. Whereas it’s nice if a fellow Muslim doesn’t offer his hand, because he knows what the situation is. It’s a different respect that exists between us, because we are brothers in Islam. If a Christian gives me his hand, I know that his intentions are honorable; if I leave him there with his hand outstretched he will be left with a bad impression of me, too hard.

In this case too a more pragmatic attitude can resolve the cultural problems of incomprehension that may arise. Latifa develops her theory further:

The fact of not being able to shake hands and other little prohibitions have never been a problem. But I’m quite old and maybe a young girl would find them bigger problems. In my work [she is an interior designer (author’s note)], when I sometimes meet a person for the first time and he wants to shake hands I shake hands the first time because otherwise I might give a bad impression. Then I explain that there is this rule that it’s better for men and women not to have direct contact unless they are close relatives, and I apologize if the following time we don’t shake hands. Everyone has understood this and they have never created any problems. Probably if on first meeting I refused to shake hands I might be considered stuck up, or anyway I wouldn’t be understood, but this way no. What’s more, in my job it often happens that a customer sends me to an acquaintance and I’ve noticed that they’ve already been informed, they get in touch with one another. So often I have no need to shake hands because they have already been told about these rules. Anyway, 90% are women customers not men. He [she is referring to her husband who is present at the interview and converted to Shi`a Islam many years before her (author’s note)] is more drastic than me and often appears with something in his hand so as not to have to shake hands with a woman, or he immediately tries to broach the subject.

On the other hand there are many male converts who prefer not to shake hands with a person of the female sex, sometimes with an even exaggerated naturalness, and sometimes a deliberately provocative attitude. In this way they may damage their relations with non-Muslim women, who may consider this a lack of respect towards them. This exaggerated form of a kind of behavior, that immigrant Muslims practice relatively seldom, is a demonstration of refusal on the part of the person in question to accept any physical contact with a person of the opposite sex outside the marriage bond.

A case similar to shaking hands – and a fortiori kissing the cheek during greetings -  is connected with respect for other eminently cultural norms typical of the Arab world such as for example those that regulate relations between the sexes within the private sphere, the home. It is especially related to norms that forbid a man and woman not of the same blood to be alone in the same room. When for example I went to interview Samira, divorced from her former Egyptian husband, at her house, even though she knew there would be no Islamic witnesses, out of respect for those rules she was waiting for me with a Christian female friend, who had come especially for the purpose, and who at the beginning of the interview retired to the neighboring room:

Q.: You have chosen a rigorous attitude in practicing Islam. Even this fact that I was coming here and as I was a man you invited a female friend of yours to be present is something that no Western women would have felt the need to do….

A.: There are rules and I like to follow them. When I decide to do something I like to do it properly. I have thought carefully about it, because it wasn’t just a question of deciding overnight. I thought hard, and when I was sure of myself, I was at peace with myself, I was serene, I took this step. And having taken this step I now want to respect what there is to have respect for.

The hijab and identity: the price to pay. Full identity for half the cost?

Wearing the hijab has a price. To what extent are women willing to pay this price? And what are the consequences on their lives? Let us give a clear example of a price that is not just psychological or symbolical. How to deal with the question of looking for a job?

We’ll start with a positive example. The decision to wear the hijab does not always have a high socio-economic price. The above-mentioned case of Latifa, interior designer before and after her conversion, is in this sense interesting:

I have never had any sort of problem at work. I am an interior designer and my work takes me to the homes of people of various social levels, from low to high class, but they have never said anything to me (…). If anything, I can say that I noticed an increase in confidence in me after I became a Muslim. It has been a great experience. The girls I go around with who are younger than me and so give more importance to clothes, I say to them that if they wear it proudly, but without being ostentatious, normally, calmly, they will see that people will respect them. I’ve had no problem in getting on with others. The only problem I had to deal with was in the beginning, inside myself. I was nervous about being rebuffed, in fact I stopped wanting to go to my customers, because I didn’t know how they would react. This fear lasted for two months, and I didn’t put my headscarf on when I was at work, but only on other occasions. At a certain point I asked myself what sort of Muslim was I anyway, and so I decided to wear it, and no one said anything.

Not all experiences are so positive however. On the contrary. It is not so much the risk of losing one’s job; even if some women decide out of fear not to even try wearing a hijab. The risk is greater for those who do not yet have a job, and know that their range of possibilities will be reduced drastically. Aisha (the radical militant mentioned above) at the beginning of her conversion, when she still wore the hijab and not the burqa (a choice that coincided with her leaving her job, for a militant and womanly commitment full time), was in telemarketing. The problems she had was not that much with the customers -  they did not see her and she did not see them-  but with her workmates. This is what she said in an interview at that time:

They ask me the most absurd questions, whereas I just wanted to be left alone to work. As it is, I do a job there that drives you crazy. If between one call and another you have to explain what the tawheed is, it’s impossible. But you have to answer somehow. You’re torn between two things. On the one hand you would like to be left in peace – but perhaps that’s not my role, to be left in peace… And so I am forced to accept the confrontation with the others, it’s only natural. Because if I stay in my corner and say that I am living my own life and am not going to speak to anyone, well, what am I doing here? I’ve got to transmit this [the Islamic faith (author’s note)] and so it’s normal for you to talk to people.

Finally, for others the fact of wearing the hijab will lead them to inventing and setting up religious (or cultural) businesses connected to Islam (teaching Arabic, or teach in Islamic schools, or Islamic publishing) and the veil itself, as in the case of those who have opened Islamic fashion boutiques, or even designing islamically correct clothes. The veil is an infinite source of discussion and polemics, even among Muslim women. Various sensibilities emerge: ‘ethnic’ (Arab women often appear to converts as more subdued to tradition than sub-Saharan African women) or ‘cultural’ (converted women appear to be more extreme than non-converted). Khalida gives a good description of this conception:

I have this idea that, as the only Muslim women that I see are Somali women, and they don’t wear a veil or they wear it in their own way, perhaps they have a way of seeing things that is closer to my way than Arab women and other converted Italian women.

The discussion between the converted women who accept or even uphold the hijab, and those who on the contrary do not accept it or leave it in the background is not one of the easiest: the former pay a price that the latter do not consider worth paying. And given that the cost of this practice is not low, it is difficult to agree to share a ‘full’ identity and to recognize it with those who retain that they are going to pay a price that is undoubtedly much lower. An attitude that not seldom has repelled even those who were approaching Islam by other routes. A university teacher of the Arabian language, a convert, gives an example:

I had the opportunity of meeting a woman student who was strongly drawn to Islam, who had studied a lot, and who asked me to introduce her to some women of the community. She came away from the encounter absolutely terrified and she changed her mind, just because of the rigidity and intolerance shown by these women.

This seems however understandable, and explains the harshness of the dialogue between these two kinds of converts: the ‘rigorists’ and the ‘flexibles.’ The first are paying an extremely high price for their choices of identity, and they therefore do not wish to concede a similar ‘identity license’ to those women who have chosen to pay, so to speak, only half price. Half the price in their eyes is not worth an entire identity. Hijabi women will often think that the others are after all not real Muslims or not enough so, or at least less than hijabi women. This is why often these two kinds of converted women do not represent only two tracks running parallel and never meeting up. Often, rather than tracks, they are scissors whose blades start from a common point (the choice and moment of conversion) and gradually diverge and separate irremediably. The former will in fact often mix with other ‘rigorists’ to confirm to each other the fullness of their identity and their exclusive legitimacy. And the latter will no longer find a common terrain of confrontation and will drift off, often more due to a feeling of exclusion than to any precise decision. After all, the latter do not deny the former any legitimacy – nor could they – and might even want to continue having relations with them. But it is the former that are less interested in these relations, which for them are destabilizing. And they use their greater ‘centrality’ to progressively marginalize, even exclude, the others. An interesting aspect is that often the support of male cultural power and cultural legitimacy is used in this process, as well as male attitudes to the hijab itself (whether those expressed by classic theology or by the district imam).

The arguments of those women who wear the hijab often show a gradual drift towards a ‘feminist’ position, defending the practice of wearing the veil (see also Badran, Roald and other articles in this volume). Layla, an ex-feminist, bears witness to:

And what have they become? [she is speaking of feminists (author’s note)]. If we have an army of women all using the same lipstick, perhaps that vivid mauve lipstick is in fashion that I used once, and everyone wears it, all the same miniskirts, and anyway they all follow the same pattern, and then they have the nerve to ask me ‘Why do you wear that?’ I can’t stand it… Because they are different, but from what? They are more conventional than me in the end, that’s what it is; and then what I can’t stand any more is all this competition, this frenetic emphasis on how you look.

Q.: – In fact in the past you have been involved in fights for abortion, for divorce, for freedom of choice, for…

A.: – The first two years after my conversion I spent asking God for forgiveness. Every evening I asked God for forgiveness for these things, because I didn’t understand…

She goes on:

At the bottom of all this there is something very profound, which has something to do with the equality of women, real equality… which is not in the fact that… I show myself like this or like that, but it really consists in the fact that all of us, at least on a physical level, are all equal before God.

The harshness, from the Western point of view, of Islamic rules concerning women, which makes their conversion decidedly a more ‘heroic’ and in any case a more costly affair (at least in its social consequences) than that of men. “For a woman it is not easy to change her garments, she needs courage. For a man it is easier because if nobody points it out to you, you don’t even realize, whereas we are immediately picked out,” one of my interviewees told me. It does not stop women from converting in proportionally significant numbers, and not only for marriage.[ix]

Some active Shi`ite groups like to use women as a sort of warhorse for their arguments against the image of Islamic oppression. One of the animators of the Italian Shi`ite community says:

More women than men enter the Shi’a. I don’t know why. Obviously the message is fascinating and attracts women, probably because we have a central figure, Fatima, whom we often talk about. I realize that it must be hard for women to become a Sunnite Muslim through marrying an Arab, with their mentality: it’s a shock. With us it’s different, women are much freer.

His wife adds:

Perhaps Shi`ite women are no better than Sunnite women, but women in the Shi`ite world are treated as the Qur`an says, and the Qur`an says that women must be treated very well.[x] Even if they are then happy to point out that there are more women converted to Islam among Shi`ites because Iranian women, contrary to Arab women, do not stay at home: once they have put on the veil, they go out, talk in public, get involved in politics, etc.[xi] They are veiled, but for that very reason they can do anything; while in the Arab world women are locked up culturally, so it would be difficult for a Western woman to become Sunnite.

The greater ‘cost’ of conversion for women does not therefore seem to prevent the conversions themselves. There is often talk of a prevalence of female conversions, at least in some countries (see van Nieuwkerk this volume). Yet, it is not sure that this corresponds with figures for other situations, or that they can be generalized to all situations. Nevertheless, it has certainly become an important element of the Islamic ideological construction on the subject.

Shifting significances: some reflections

What is true for the convert is also true for the researcher: the meaning of symbols is shifting and slippery. My initial intention was to describe the differences between the meanings that men and women converts give to the hijab, and the different use they make of them. But my analysis and observations have led me to a quite different position. Before dealing with that, we need to advance a more general point. As a sociologist specialized in religions and cultural change, and not only or exclusively in Islam, I am more and more convinced that we must de-Islamize (if I may use this expression) the study of Islam and Muslims, especially but not only in Europe. Too often, even in serious works and not only in journalistic vulgarization, Islam is considered a special if not unique case, both theoretically and empirically. Islam is different. Muslims are different. This is the usual starting point. Is this the case? I am not at all so sure.

In the theoretical part of my book on converts I compare different theories of conversion, and empirical studies on conversions to different religions (1998; see also several contributions in Social Compass 1999, and in this volume). There are obviously many differences, in both theories and empirical observations, but they are much less related to observable ‘intrinsic’ differences among religions than to individual cultural, social and psychological factors. In the push-and-pull (or supply-and-demand) process that conversion is, demands are often similar. This is why some types of conversion, such as the ‘relational type’ that I have described, are very common and even conventional in their trajectories in many religions: an ideal type in the proper Weberian sense. What is more often different is the role of the religious ’supply,’ which may respond to different demands. In this sense Islam, as other religions, is significant: but Islam does not only have one offer. Like other complex religious systems, it has many, depending on the context, the moment, and what the individual is seeking. The ’supply,’ under the name of Islam itself, is wide and articulated. A person can convert to Christianity in search of mysticism, a ‘total institution’ (such as monasteries or religious orders).[xii] The same can be said for Islam, which can offer, for instance, a sort of sacralization of political engagement in a spiritual community, or, on the contrary, a response to a highly individual spiritual and mystical thirst. Both these trajectories can frequently be observed among converts to Islam.

If we consider gender issues related to religion, there are far fewer specific Islamic issues than the public opinion (included most professional observers) think. In comparative studies, common sense statements on subjects such as ‘the condition of woman in Islam’ lose much of their expected self-explanatory meaning. This fact is also true for conversions. I have extensively researched both Muslim converts and immigrants within the Islamic champs religieux, to use Bourdieu’s expression. In this case too, Muslim positions are not that significantly different. The differences are internal to both groups, and to men and women in both groups, as much as between the two groups.

Let us take the most sensitive example. It is quite easy to find different personal attitudes and feelings about the hijab between men and women: simply because women really wear and experience it, probably. It is less easy to find such differences in what they say about it. In fact, the reasons used to justify their choice are not that different: if a woman convert decides to wear the hijab, frequently the reason for it, the rationalization, will be supported by traditional theological arguments, elaborated and transmitted by a typically ‘male’ theology – the level of stereotyping is high as well. Differences, then, are already among men and among women, not only between them. To summarize my argument on this point in a short expression, the gender issue does not seem to be necessarily gendered in its motivations and justifications. The difference is located at the level of individual experience. Hence it is not easy to distinguish male and female arguments on the hijab. For the same reasons, it is not easy to distinguish the positions of immigrants and converts, even if different ‘accents’ can be found. Similarities are more easily observed when we need to legitimize the hijab: differences may emerge more often when it is a question of refusing it.

The same can be said for the positions of the first and second generations, the latter being more similar to converts (Allievi 2000). In both cases, the accent is more on choice than on tradition. Although there are differences in the figures, we find veiled and unveiled women in both categories. It is easier to find differences in Sufi and Sunni arguments on the hijab, but again we can find veiled and unveiled women in both, even if – probably – in a different percentage. I have underlined these aspects to show that both the dimension of continuity and that of change are important. The cultural dimension often ‘continues,’ while personal lives change.

This aspect leads me to the last point: the importance of what I call the ‘T’ factor (T for “time”). Individuals change in their lives: they change attitudes, opinions, and behavior. This is equally true also for those who have changed religion. This aspect raises a serious methodological problem. If we elaborate statistics and percentages (for instance, of hijabi or non-hijabi converts, but also of converts), we have to face a general problem that has more obvious consequences on our topic: we normally interview our informants only once. But they change their mind and behavior even in their post-conversion life, and more than once: this is why in the literature on conversions concepts such as the ‘conversion career’ and similar have been introduced (see Allievi 1998). This is true for the choice of wearing the hijab, but also for conversions themselves. People de-convert and also ‘revert,’ but we normally interview only the converts, and not the de-converts, for the simple reason that, unless it is by chance, we do not find them in the same places in which we are looking for converts.[xiii]

This aspect is important also for the shifting meaning of hijab. Opinions about it change, both in men and women converts, for instance, at the initial stage, immediately after conversion, or many years after (see Hermansen this volume). I know and frequently meet converts with whom I have remained in close contact: their opinions have changed a lot over the years. This can sometimes be measured through interviews, particularly through life-stories. However, only self-confident and well-established converts are able to talk at ease, over a distance of time, about the changes in their attitudes and even beliefs, with a high level of self-criticism. Many others are not.

As regards our topic, there may be changes in both directions: from being veiled (initially) to being unveiled seems quite frequent. But we can also observe trajectories going in the opposite direction, when the conversion is not a ‘moment’ (as in St. Paul’s ideal type of sudden conversion), but a step-by-step process, in which the ‘converting’ persons progressively acquire familiarity with certain references, and progressively ‘include’ them in their personality-building process. Why these changes, these shifts?

There may be many factors at play. The main ones refer probably to the fact that the meaning of the hijab differs depending the moment, the person, the situation, the context, and its importance in establishing the haram/halal frontier. From this point of view, the main functions of the hijab seem to be the following. First, it helps women to convert (oblige them, from a certain point of view), to keep to the new choice, to ‘enter’ it in a radical way; like circumcision for men (which is far more ‘definitive’). Second, it helps them to be accepted by the new ‘significant others.’ This is particularly true for women who see immigrants and pray in mosques, attending the Friday prayer and other moments of gathering, such as Sunday meetings, etc. The problem here is the ‘plausibility structure’ they refer to. This is even more important if they want to marry a Muslim man, in order to ‘complete’ their ‘plausibility structure’ as Muslim women. [xiv] For some women there is also the idea of integration and solidarity with ‘de-privileged’ women, as we saw in the case of Nura. Third, it helps them to establish and maintain the haram/halal frontiers: which in themselves, in the Western context, are shifting, unclear and not at all stable. This is true not only for converts, but also for some ‘reborn Muslims,’ particularly of the second generation, who recuperate the hijab explicitly or implicitly with this function. Some ijtihad elaborated in Europe and some ‘new Islamic theology’[xv] plays exactly this role of re-establishing the haram/halal frontier: and the hijab is one of its topics of discussion. It can also be used to maintain or establish this frontier: “I am a walking symbol,” as stated so effectively by Aisha. An interesting consequence of this statement offers us a key to a better understanding of why the hijab is so often a polemical tool in debates on Islam in the European public space.

Conflicts need symbols, and the hijab is the perfect symbol to use for conflict, with its implications in different fields (cultural, social, political, juridical), and its polysemy. For instance, it can be understood by its opponents as a symbol of the structurally ‘primitive’ character of Islam in general, but also specifically of the oppression of women. Women have always been – and still are, as anthropologists and historians have shown on many occasions – the typical ‘object’ of appropriation by various cultural, ethnic or religious groups, and the typical enjeu in conflicts and clashes. On the other hand, it can be understood and even more used as an instrument of emancipation, as often happens among second generations. And, of course, it can have many other meanings. This is why in many European countries the hijab has become a public issue, at the macro level, and will continue to be such at the micro level, until we have become accustomed to it as something normal: something which will not happen in the near future.


In more than a dozen years of fieldwork among the Muslim communities of Europe, and of observations of reactions to the presence of Islam in the European public space, I have become more and more convinced that what Europeans refuse about Islam is not its difference and otherness (Islam as the paradigmatic example of ‘the absolute other,’ the other more other than is conceivable), but its similarity: Islam, in a way, returns to Europe not what is ‘other’ in its history, but what is familiar to it. Islam is not different: it is not the contrary of what we are, it is ‘us’ – one generation ago, or more. What we see in the mirror of Islam is not the portrait of something that is unknown to Europe: it is Europe (a part of it, and of its cultural legacy) – perhaps a little younger than now (and not even in all cases – sometimes it is very contemporary). As Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955) stated: “I know very well the reasons for the uneasiness I feel in front of Islam: I find in it the universe I come from; Islam is the West of the East”.

This is true for some ‘hot’ topics concerning the links between religion and politics; but it is also true for many gender-related issues, the hijab included. We have to admit that many women converts find Islam interesting: not in spite of its ‘otherness,’ but precisely because of its ‘otherness’ (or what the mainstream culture defines as otherness, but is not perceived as such by the individuals attracted by it). Something that is not alien to their mentality, but, on the contrary, familiar to it. The problem is, as Yvonne Haddad declared during the workshop in which the papers of this volume were discussed, that it is easier to say: “It is my religion, it is my duty as a woman in this religion, it is the will of God,” in order to justify a preference, than to say: “It is my choice, I want to be a woman in the ‘traditional’ way – having different roles for men and women, for instance.” Some women do not feel strong enough to counter the current cultural debate on women in the West, the sort of thing that is found in female models of mass communication. They need a ‘plausibility structure’ to sustain their alternative position. They cannot find it anywhere. But Islam offers just such a position.

Stefano Allievi is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Padua. He is specialized on migration issues, in sociology of religion and cultural change, and has particularly focused his studies and researches on the presence of Islam and the religious pluralization of Europe. He wrote numerous works on these topics. Among others: L’occidente di fronte all’islam [The West facing Islam] (1996 Franco Angeli, Milan) (ed.); Il libro e la spada. Le sfide dei fondamentalismi [The Book and the Sword. The challenge of Fundamentalisms] (2000 Claudiana, Turin) (with D. Bidussa e P. Naso); Un Dio al plurale. Presenze religiose in Italia [A God in the plural. Religious presences in Italy] (2001 EDB, Bologne) (with G.Guizzardi and C.Prandi); Musulmani d’occidente. Tendenze dell’islam europeo [Muslims of the West. Tendencies of the European Islam] (2002 Carocci, Rome); Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe (2003 Brill, Leiden-Boston) (ed. with J.S.Nielsen); Islam italiano. Viaggio nella seconda religione del paese [Italian Islam. A Journey through Italy’s Second Religion] (2003 Einaudi, Turin); Salute e salvezza. Le religioni di fronte alla nascita, alla malattia e alla morte (2002 EDB, Bologne);

Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society (2003 Brill, Leiden-Boston) (ed. with B.Maréchal, F.Dassetto and J.S.Nielsen). He is the author of  Les Convertis a l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’ Europe (1998 L’Harmattan, Paris).


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[i] It must be stressed that the RAMP project is considered the most advanced point of comparative research on the subject of pluralism, to such an extent that it also involved researchers from the more well-known EVS project (European Values Systems), which was then to become WVS (World Values Systems), on which are based for example the well-known theories of Inglehart on the “silent revolution” and the progressive individualization of Western societies, by many criticized above all from a methodological point of view for their incapacity to really grasp the dimension of religious pluralism outside the Christian context. For further work on these subjects, see Allievi (2003b).

[ii] On the role of the media, see my chapter in Part III of Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen (2003), a comparative research work written on the request of the European Commission.

[iii] I have developed the distinction between relational and rational conversions in a detailed model of trajectories to Islam in my book Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe (Allievi 1998).

[iv] It must be acknowledged that Sufism is the aspect of Islam that attracts Westerners most, even non-Muslims: books on Sufism can be found on the shelves of many bookshops, and particularly in New Age environments, where we can find references to Sufi music, Sufi healing, etc.

[v] A three-year research project (Allievi 1998), conducted between 1994 and 1997, with 46 in-depth interviews (many of which concern persons that I met on more than one occasion, and in different places: home, mosque, etc.), and periods of participant observation during Islamic moments of sociability. These moments included meetings, conferences, congresses, and involved both immigrants and converts, but also specific meetings of converts, the hadras of Sufi groups, etc. Some periods of observation lasted up to two or three days. The number of converts contacted, and to whom I spoke personally, I cannot give, but they were in the hundreds. Those, with whom I explicitly talked about conversion issues, in face-to-face discussions between a researcher qualified as such and a subject accepting to be ‘researched,’ with field-notes being taken, come to another one hundred or more. Roughly, one third of them were women. Contacts and interrelations with converts continued after the end of the research, and are still continuing, with systematic meetings and occasional structured interviews.

[vi] The Biblical and Qur`anic example of Adam who gives names to all the animals thus giving them a meaning and a function is in this sense more than clear.

[vii] At the moment of writing (December 2003) the latest proposal, made by a Commission des sages led by Bernard Stasi, is a legal ban on the hijab and other ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols. President Chirac supports the proposal for a ban law.

[viii] Even if it is an ancient problem and not only Islamic: “’Why,’ wondered Plutarch, ‘do we cover our heads to adore the divinity?’ The answer is simple: to separate ourselves from the profane person (…) and to live only in the sacred world” (Van Gennep 1909).

[ix] Remember à propos that it is the man who is obliged to convert, in order to marry a Muslim woman, while for a woman she is only, so to speak, ‘warmly advised,’ or possibly there is an obligation connected with the couple’s relationship, on the request of the Muslim partner, but in any case not a legal duty, or an obligation of the sunna.

[x] There follows a list of the classic arguments, we might say the vulgata on the subject, basically similar for Shi`ites and Sunnites. We give this exposition without any comment, even though much could be said, both as regards the ideological construction and the deliberate confusion between the ideal plane and that of reality, to finish with the more conspicuous part: the omissions. “There are many rules for woman to be protected and respected. Women have many rights. In the Shi`ite world women nearly always manage to have these, in the Sunnite world no, because being prevalently Arab, it is based on pre-Islamic rules which men have no intention of renouncing, because it is handy for a man to have women to serve him. There are many negative things that are imputed to Islam, but they are not true. They are things instead that the Arabs have brought down over the centuries, and which they have not managed to free themselves of through Islam. Whereas in the Shi`ite world this does not happen, because women enjoy great protection. Also in marriage. The advantages for women are so many that probably, seeing how Islam is considered in the West, they will not be believed. It is not true that the woman becomes a slave of the man. It is true that before marriage, in her father’s house she is under his protection, but after she has married there are a thousand rules. The woman does not even have the obligation to do work in the house if she does not want to do so. She does not even have to breastfeed her children if she does not want to, because in Islam they belong to the father, they carry his name. If a woman brings a dowry this dowry cannot be touched. If she works after getting married the husband still has to keep her, the money she earns all belongs to her. Of course she puts it into the house, she helps the family, but not because she is obliged to do it. If she so wishes, she can put her money away. There are a great number of rules that protect the woman and therefore if a girl knows the Shi’ite world, it is easier for her to choose this path because she knows that she will be protected more.”

[xi] Similar instances of this Shi`ite ‘pride’ are given in Roald (this volume).

[xii] It will be enough to refer here to the well-known typologies elaborated by Max Weber, concerning asceticism and mysticism and their internal differences to understand how different and articulated what we usually call the religious offer may be, as if it were only one.

[xiii] I have personally met some of them: but, I should say, randomly.

[xiv] Which by definition, in Islam, includes the fact of being married. Theologically, this is true also for men, by the way: al-zawaj nisf al-iman, i.e. marriage, is half of faith; but, socially, this is ‘less’ true for them.

[xv] Of which Tariq Ramadan is the most well-known expression. See, among others, Ramadan (1999). I have underlined some significant elements of this attempt in a long foreword to the Italian edition of the book.

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