The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is planning to prohibit schoolchildren under the age of 14 from wearing headscarves. But rather than an outright ban, experts say speaking with parents would be more productive.
Yasemin Okutansoy teaches English and Islam at a secondary school in Bonn. Boys whose mothers wear headscarves have asked Okutansoy, who is Muslim, "why don't you wear a headscarf?" She has explained to her pupils that she is not obliged to wear one. She discussed and analyzed the respective sections in the Quran with her class, arguing that wearing the headscarf has more to do with the culture associated with religion. The headscarf originally served to protect from heat and sand in the desert, she believes. But anyone may dispute that, she says, given that "everyone is free to form their own opinion." By the same token, everyone must be tolerant of dissenting opinions, Okutansoy added, and nobody may be forced to wear a headscarf.
So what about the girls attending her school? Okutansoy says that about 70 percent of the pupils there are Muslim. She estimates that between one and three girls per class wear a headscarf, including some that are younger than 14. Okutansoy says they wear it voluntarily. "That also applies to girls whose mothers do not even wear one," she explains.
Okutansoy believes wearing the headscarf is part of the girls' process of developing their identities, and it has also come into fashion: "Girls that wear headscarf also put on makeup, use the headscarf as a fashionable item, and pin up their hair underneath."
When Okutansoy's parents moved from Turkey to Germany in the 1960s, it was prohibited to wear headscarves in Turkish schools, universities and state offices. This had an effect on the way Turkish families lived in Germany, too. Now, says Okutansoy, the headscarf is becoming popular. That also has to do with families from various Muslim countries living in Germany today who have different traditions.
Ban 'impossible to enforce'
Thomas Böhm, a lecturer in school law at the Institute for Teacher Training in Essen who instructs both teachers and headmasters, agrees that "the number of pupils wearing a headscarf is increasing." He also says a ban on headscarves in schools would be "impossible to enforce." Schools would have few options to sanction violations, Böhm explains: They could only send pupils home and talk to their parents, but if there is no understanding for this policy, little else could be done. "It would be pointless to open a separate class, it would be out of the question to make the student leave the school because that is a disproportionate response."
Okutansoy does not wish to tell her students what to wear. "After all, I don't mind girls with punk haircuts, either," she says. And likewise nobody will force girls from Christian Baptist families to wear trousers when their religion obliges them to wear frocks, Okutansoy added. "We enjoy religious freedom so everyone must decide for themselves what to wear."
Böhm agrees that parents can stress freedom of religion and their right to parental care, pointing out that as German teachers are allowed to wear headscarves, it is that much more difficult to justify a ban for students. "That would not be possible from a legal perspective," Böhm explains. He believes having a debate about religious symbols or distractions resulting from different cultural practices in schools is important, but that opting for a headscarf ban "would not be an ideal starting point for that."
Engaging in dialogue
Böhm and Okutansoy are in total agreement on one thing: talking to parents is key. Often, this is how something can be worked out, Böhm says, noting that "only a small minority adopt a fiercely defensive stance."
Okutansoy says there are more important issues and questions than a possible headscarf ban, such as violence against children. She has also seen girls take off their headscarves for good after growing tired of them. But Okutansoy does favor strict rules when it comes to full-face veils: "The full-face veil, where you can't see someone's face and don't know who you're talking to, should be prohibited." Indeed, her school has taken action in this regard. "We decided not to admit any girls who wear a full-face veil," she says, "and not to let mothers with such a veils enter our school."