Germany divided over hijab

Controversy surrounds a recent court decision in favor of a school teacher wearing a headscarf.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Having spent the last 15 years of her life wearing the Muslim hijab, or head scarf, teacher Emine Öztürk can't imagine taking it off in public, even for just one minute.

But that's exactly what Ms. Öztürk might have to do if she ever wants to get a teaching job in a Berlin public school.

"It's part of my identity," says this young German of Turkish descent. "How can I lay my identity at the door of the classroom?"

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It is a question on the minds of many here following a decision by Germany's highest court, allowing teacher Fereshta Ludin to wear her head scarf in class as long as there are no state laws against it. Since the decision came down two weeks ago, a majority of German states, including Berlin, have announced plans to pass such laws.

In the debate that has ensued, politicians and Muslim leaders have begun to ask some serious questions about the place their religion and identity holds in a Europe rooted in Christianity and Judaism, but with a growing Muslim population.

"You have a new generation of Muslims ... reasonably educated, fluent in cultures of languages they live in ... demanding a sort of legitimization; they want it without having to become assimilated," says Shireen Hunter, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies Islam Program, and editor of "Islam, Europe's Second Religion."

In France, the ban on head scarves in everything from schools to ID cards has provoked an outcry in recent years by that country's increasingly strong Muslim population. In the United Kingdom and Sweden, a more open attitude prevails. Teachers and even female Muslim police officers are allowed to wear their head scarves.

Germany's relationship to its 3.2 million Muslims is decidedly more fragile.

Touchy issues of integration such as Muslim dress and the ritual slaughter of sheep in accordance with Islamic law have been brought before courts to decide in recent years. Earlier this summer, the constitutional court ruled that a department store could not fire a Muslim woman because she wanted to wear her head scarf during work.

The legal conflicts are symptoms of the German government and Turkish community neglecting to address the issue of integration, say historians. By the time integration became a topic, the sons and grandsons of the Turkish guest workers who had arrived in the 1960s had already carved out little Ankaras and Istanbuls in Germany's major cities.

They built up parallel societies that made the Turkish grocer, corner Doener stand, and mosque part of the everyday urban landscape in Germany. Many Muslim leaders are puzzled why a hijab-wearing woman wanting to teach in a public school is such a big deal nowadays.

"We live in a free, modern society, where everyone has their own self-awareness," says Ali Kizilkaya, head of the powerful and controversial Islamrat, Germany's largest Muslim group. "Are we so weak that a square foot of cloth can make us feel threatened?"

Opponents argue that it is not the head scarf, but the fact that Ludin wants to wear it in a public school classroom. Germany has no official religion, and the state is constitutionally bound to maintain a position of neutrality in religious matters.

Eight years ago, the constitutional court ruled that crucifixes would have to be removed from classrooms in Bavaria if just one student objected.

Some observers see the push to wear the Muslim head scarf in a school setting as incompatible with this principle of state neutrality. The fact that Muslims want what many see as more freedom to express their religion than German Christians makes parliamentarian Wolfgang Bosbach angry.

"The debate is absurd," says the domestic affairs expert for the conservative Christian Democrats in the German parliament. "This is not an Islamic country, it's a Christian country, and we should not be forced to accommodate Islam."

Other Germans perceive the scarf as a threat not so much to a Judeo- Christian heritage, but to Western secularism and women's rights.

"There are very few women who wear the head scarf voluntarily, and their number is so small they are not worth talking about," says Seyran Ates, a women's right activist and lawyer in Berlin.

Since running away from her parents' traditional Turkish household in Berlin at 18, Ms. Ates has spent her life fighting for the rights of women yearning to break free of the traditional and religious mold their parents foresee for them.

In the two weeks since the decision came down, she has been a favorite of TV news producers looking for the choice sound bite. The 40-year-old, who wrote a book about leaving her strict home, says she is astounded at the legitimacy with which some German politicians give the head scarf.

"We need to never forget that what we're talking about here is fundamentalism," she says.

Rather than decide what place a piece of cloth that represents religious freedom to some, fundamentalism to others, has in a state-run school, Germany's constitutional court referred the question to the state parliaments and the public domain - where many believe it belongs.

"We're not ready for such a decision," says Riem Spielhaus, an Islamic Studies professor at Berlin's Humboldt University. Referring to Germany's integration problems, Professor Spielhaus says, "We need an atmosphere of openness where we can admit that other religions might also change our values."

The direction the debate is going worries both Muslims and Germans. Misconceptions that the head scarf is an umbilical cord to a fundamentalist Islam could have the opposite effect. Pockets of devout Muslims, facing limited job prospects because of their religious dress, could withdraw into parallel societies harboring the type of terror nests that produced the Sept. 11 attackers.

"There's not a fundamentalist under every head scarf, and thinking that would be fatal," says Spielhaus. "Ms. Ludin's head scarf, which she willingly puts on, is good for the Western society. Banning head scarves would be a victory for fundamentalists."

Öztürk makes a similar argument, adding that her head scarf could even begin dismantling prejudices before they arise in her young students.

"I think it's very sad that this society continues to look at the head scarf as something of a threat," said Öztürk. "I find it shocking that so many things are projected onto the head scarf without anyone ever asking the women who wear them."

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