Veiled truths

After a decade-long debate, Germany's constitutional court has struck down the ban on headscarves for public sector workers this month. In our Islam issue, we examined whether women should be forced to uncover.

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Photo by Anna Agliardi

To cover or not to cover? Germany’s decade-long debate around the Islamic headscarf continues to divide.

Assertive and eloquent, stubborn and uncompromising, 25-year-old law school graduate Betül Ulusoy is far from the German stereotype of a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman. Yet she’s been wearing one since she was a girl.

“I wear cotton when I do gardening or sports, silk when I go to work or for a night out. I like fashion, so everything’s often colour-coordinated.” Like 30 percent of Muslim women in Germany, Ulusoy wears a hijab – a veil that covers the head, neck and chest. Although her mother covers up, her parents, both descendants of Turkish guest workers, were against their three daughters following suit. “My mum wears a headscarf to connect her to her old country, but people were unfriendly to her because of it, so she didn’t want us wearing them. She wanted to make life easier for us.” Ulusoy decided she wanted to wear one while attending an Islamic primary school in Kreuzberg; after years of badgering, her parents gave in. “My dad thought I was too young and wanted me to make the decision a bit later and with more awareness. However, he raised me to have a strong personality, and he knows that when I get something in my head I will see it through.”

The most fervent opposition came from her mother’s elder sister: “My aunt was completely against it – she thought it was outdated. She said to me, ‘If you wear the headscarf, I won’t be seen with you in public!’ and she stuck by that threat. She stopped taking me to the cinema, walked ahead of me when we were out together.”

But it wasn’t until she began attending high school at a Gymnasium in Neukölln that Ulusoy learned what her headscarf meant to most non-Muslim Germans. At the first lesson of term, Ulusoy’s politics teacher shouted at her and a friend: “Another two of you headscarf lot!” After Ulusoy organised a discussion with 2006 Berlin state election candidates which drew press attention, the school headmistress approached 16-year-old Ulusoy to congratulate her, but added: “‘Now we just have to talk about your scheiß Kopftuch.”

The reason I choose to cover is constantly evolving. After 9/11 and high school, it became an act of defiance; I’ll wear it now precisely because you don’t want me to.

Later, Ulusoy was offered the possibility of going to Paris on an exchange trip, but was told she would have to remove her headscarf during lessons, like French Muslim girls, since religious symbols are banned in French public schools. She rebelled, refused to give in and ended up not joining the trip, something she bitterly recalls as discrimination and “being expulsed from a school exchange”. What if it was the other way around? “If a German girl was asked to wear a headscarf in any situation, be it just for two hours, I’d stand 100 percent behind her and say it is wrong to make her wear one. Freedom means that everyone can wear whatever he or she wants, even when others don’t like that.”

In 2013, to counter a FEMEN protest calling for the ‘liberation’ of headscarf wearers, Ulusoy and five of her friends formed the activist group MuslimaPride. “What bothered me more than anything was knowing people would think, ‘FEMEN are right! Muslim women are oppressed and must be freed! I wanted to provide a counterweight.” Her choice of headwear has turned into a rebellious statement. “The reason I choose to cover is constantly evolving. As a child, I loved stories about the Prophet in the Quran, but I also wanted to be a grown-up… After 9/11 and high school, it became an act of defiance; I’ll wear it now precisely because you don’t want me to. Today, I wear it out of spirituality and because it is part of my Muslim identity.”

The Quran does not specifically state that women must cover their heads or faces. Rather, there is a passage that reads that women should “draw their veils over their bosoms” to preserve their modesty. Various interpretations of this have led to the hijab, the niqab (which covers all but the eyes) and the burqa (which covers the eyes with a screen), among others.

“I don’t draw a line,” says Ulusoy about more restrictive forms of covering. “Whether I like it or not, it’s irrelevant – I shouldn’t involve myself in other people’s freedom.” An imam met at a Wedding mosque, also stressed that a woman’s free choice should be the criteria: “It is not Islamic to force women to cover like the Talibans do. It is Islamic for women to cover the body.” Yet in Westerners’ eyes, these garments have become inextricably tied to female oppression in countries like Afghanistan and Iran, where it is illegal to appear in public without a hijab. In the areas of Syria controlled by ISIS, women must cover themselves from head to toe.

“You can’t compare a Muslim woman in Germany with the image you have of women from Saudi Arabia or Iran,” says Ulusoy. “But I understand that non-Muslims have those images in their head, as long as they only have the information that the media presents them with.”

Such associations have prompted headscarf bans across Europe – including Germany. In March 2015, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that Muslim teachers were allowed to wear headscarves in the classroom as long as they didn’t prove “disrupting”, partially overturning a neutrality law passed in Berlin in 2005 banning all religious symbols for civil servants. This law was the response to an almost two-year debate sparked when German-Afghan teacher Fereshta Ludin filed a federal lawsuit against Stuttgart school authorities for denying her a teaching post on the grounds of her headscarf. Though ruling in Ludin’s favour, the court framed the issue as a state neutrality problem that could be rectified if all religious expression was banned for public servants. “Headscarves have no place on people in service of the state, including teachers,” former chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared in 2003. The resulting law allowed German pupils to wear headscarves, but forbids teachers from doing so during working hours – a compromise between the ‘freedom-first’ model of the US, the UK and Scandinavia and the fully secular model in France and Belgium where no religious signs are permitted for teachers or pupils.

Yet ‘neutrality’ in principle doesn’t guarantee equality in practice. While seven other German states followed Berlin’s lead in banning public school teachers from wearing headscarves, five of them – Baden-Württemberg, Saarland, Hesse, Bavaria, and North Rhine-Westphalia – still allowed Christian and Jewish clothing, such as kippahs and nun’s habits. The so-called neutrality law became referred to, even in Berlin, as the “Kopftuchverbot”.

Seyran Ates, a sceptical, self-described ‘liberal Muslim’ and lawyer supports the move to separate religion and state that Berlin’s neutrality law attempted. “If refraining from wearing a headscarf is important for my career, I’d rather just not do it than insist. Wearing a headscarf isn’t a religious imperative like believing in Allah.” She describes the act of wearing a headscarf more as “a symbol of submission to men than to God.”

Ates, who is of Kurdish descent, came to Wedding from Istanbul as a six-year-old. Now 51, she has never worn any type of headscarf and recalls her mother parting with her own hijab soon after arriving in Berlin: “Back then, most Turkish women took off their headscarf because they had come to Germany and wanted to work here.”

Her criticisms of rising conservatism among Germany’s Muslim community have earned her death threats and physical attacks. Her experiences nonetheless do not steer her toward oversimplifying: “There is a definite polarisation in the Islamic world,” Ates adds. “It is as plural as the Christian and the Jewish ones. We have to be clear about that.” Yet, she casts doubt on the nature of the ‘free choice’ involved in young women’s decision to cover their heads: “I doubt they had the type of childhood that enabled them to develop a free self-image. Can they really say everything they did was voluntary and that they live free, self-determined lives?”

Meanwhile, activist and author Emel Zeynelabidin sees the Neutrality Law as a missed opportunity to confront uncomfortable issues and open a much needed public debate on the place of Islam in the country.

The headscarf debate led Zeynelabidin on a 17-month journey experimenting with different styles that fulfilled the requirement of covering hair, ears and neck until she finally decided to test what would happen if she didn’t cover her head… at all. “It felt stinknormal, as we say in German,” Zeynelabidin laughs.

Born in Istanbul but living in Germany since infancy, Zeynelabidin first covered her head on the day of her first menstrual cycle, as tradition posits. But in February 2005, after 30 years, the 54-year-old mother of six took off her hijab once and for all. “My head no longer felt hemmed in. It was free.” Her decision led to social ostracisation and rejection. A chairwoman of the Islamic Women’s Association for 10 years, Zeynelabidin was an active member of Berlin’s Muslim community at the time. “You can’t hide it, of course, when someone who usually appears in public with a headscarf suddenly no longer wears one. They said to me, ‘You’re now one of them.’ Or ‘Do you have no shame?’ Breaking off contact and refusing to talk to me was another reaction.”

Yet, Zeynelabidin is critical of the neutrality law as having “watered down the issues”: “German politics is turning away from a real debate, simply saying ‘We neutralise it by banning the symbol.’ But that’s no debate! Avoiding confrontation is widespread in Germany, and that is so dangerous!”

Gabriele Boos-Niazy, chairwoman of the Women’s Coalition for Action (AmF), has accused the ban of condoning the same thing that its proponents critique the custom of covering for: erasing women from public life. “I mean, if they really think that’s the case, they should be striving to bring these women into the workplace so that they earn their own money, throw off their headscarves with their newfound independence and stand on their own two feet. But the fact that they aren’t being welcomed with open arms shows that isn’t what it’s about at all.” A hijab wearer herself who converted to Islam 30 years ago after marrying her Muslim husband, Boos-Niazy advises affected women and the Federal Constitutional Court on the law’s repercussions.

And though teachers may now cover, other public sector workers still face stigmatisation – as happened last year when four different Berlin judges refused to hear private Muslim lawyers who covered their hair. Another case at the Tiergarten Magistrates Court in March saw a judge order a witness in a wrongful parking case to remove her hijab because he said he needed to see her ears to know whether she was telling the truth. Boos-Niazy sees the problem as linked to the judicial situation in Berlin, which legitimises the rejection of the veiled Muslim woman: “The fact that someone can even think like that, reflected everywhere in the media and in politics, gives people the impression that you can simply and legally say, ‘No, actually you are qualified, but I don’t want you because you wear a headscarf.’” Of 700 companies surveyed by Freiburg Pedagogy University in 2013, 35.1 percent said they would not hire a woman who wore any form of veiling. For her part, Ulusoy says she encounters “great irritation” at job interviews when potential employers see her hijab.

Far from resolving questions of sexism in Islam or the issue of the marginalisation of Muslim women in society, Germany’s so-called ‘neutrality laws’ sweep the debate under the carpet instead, while giving potential employers an opportunity to discriminate against both females and Muslims in total legality – a danger in Germany’s current climate of growing anti-Islam sentiment.

So, what now? In March 2012, a young Muslim woman won a lawsuit against a Berlin dentist for rejecting her application for a training post on the grounds of her headscarf, and was awarded three months pay as compensation. Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Authority described the Berlin Labour Court’s ruling as “a verdict which sends a signal.” Should secularism and women’s rights truly be the goal, and for the neutrality law not to be reduced to that “Kopftuchverbot” moniker, reengagement with the debate is essential.

Originally published in issue #133, December 2014


On Friday, March 13, Germany’s Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court) ruled that North-Rhine Westphalia’s law against teachers wearing headscarves in the classroom was unconstitutional. Two female teachers from the state challenged the local law after one of them had been dismissed from her job and the other had been admonished for replacing her headscarf with a beret, “discernibly substituting” the headscarf. The order was made public and will now apply to the eight states with laws banning headscarves on teachers, including Berlin – one of the few states to outlaw religious symbols not only in schools but in all public sectors.

The court ruled that the Neutralitätsgesetz from 2005 was an infringment of the German Grundgesetz (Article 4, which guarantees citizens freedom of religion). At the centre of the argument against the law was that while people of Jewish and Christian faith working in the public sector received special exceptions on religious garments, Muslims weren’t receiving the same freedom.

But even if the law had been fairly distributed to all religions, it would still go against Germany’s constitution. So, a second clause ruled the preference for Jewish and Christian symbols invalid as well -– symbols which had been previously excluded from the ban. Now, symbols from every religion can be displayed freely in public sectors, conforming to the law of equality.

The law is now set be adjusted: displaying religious faith can only be prohibited if it leads to a “sufficiently concrete danger for the school’s freedom or the state’s neutrality,” according to the Court. A general prohibition on headscarves for public workers – such as correctional officers, police, state officials, and teachers – is henceforth impossible. JW