“The decisive thing is not what’s on the head, but what’s in it,” says a group of prominent German women who have launched a campaign against the government’s headscarf ban for Muslim teachers.
Headscarves are causing a stir in Europe.
Over 70 women gathered in front of the symbolically significant statue of the Roman goddess Minerva -- the patron of teachers and the goddess of wisdom -- at the German parliament building in Berlin on Monday to plead for a more discerning and objective debate over the Muslim headscarf.
The group, which sees itself working independently of political and religious considerations, signed an "appeal against a headscarf law." Initiated by Federal Commissioner for Integration and Foreigners, Marieluise Beck, the protest initiative includes politicians from across the party spectrum, scientists and leaders from the church and media.
Former parliamentary president, Rita Süssmuth, minister for Consumer Affairs and Agriculture Renate Künast, Federal Commissioner for Human Rights Claudia Roth and popular actresses Katja Riemann and Renan Demirkan have all lent the petition their support.
Headscarf doesn’t equal fundamentalism
The group resists equating Muslim women wearing headscarves with fundamentalism. Though they admit that the headscarf, veil and all-enveloping burkha are visible instruments used by Islamic fundamentalists to portray the repression of women, it insists that not all women wearing the headscarf are religious fanatics.
The protestors emphasize that many Muslim women don’t view emancipation and the headscarf as contradictory. "We shouldn’t exclude these women with a headscarf ban," the group warns.
Headscarf debate a recurring issue
The headscarf issue has rocked Germany and several parts of Europe with large Muslim populations in recent years with increasing frequency. The question of whether headscarf-wearing Muslim women should be allowed to take up posts in state-run schools and in public life and how far such a tradition compromises a western country’s constitutionally-enshrined religious neutrality has sparked furious debate.
In September this year, Germany’s highest court in Karlsruhe ruled that school authorities in Stuttgart were wrong to bar a Muslim woman (photo) from a teaching job because she insisted on wearing a headscarf in the classroom. At the same time, the court insisted that though Germany’s constitutional law did not explicitly forbid the wearing of headscarves in the classroom in state-run schools in the first place, the possibility remained for states to legally enact such a ban.
"What’s decisive is not what’s on the head, but what’s inside it"
Monday’s protest is now focussing on four German states, which are scrambling to impose a ban on headscarf-wearing teachers in the aftermath of the September ruling.
Marieluise Beck told Deutsche Welle about how the protest took shape. "It came about because we noticed that after the Karlsruhe ruling, emotions were much stronger than objectivity and rationality and that a discerning element to the debate was increasingly missing."
Beck added that the legislation hammered out by the four states attempting to enact the headscarf ban had "violated the clearly formulated constitutional command of the ruling, namely that it should be about the equal treatment of all religions." Beck said, "What we’re trying to say is that what’s decisive is not what’s on the head, but rather what’s inside it."
Headscarf ban an obstacle to emancipation
The protest appeal is also an attempt to make society understand women rights, the group says. The signatories say a headscarf ban limits a women’s freedom of choice as well as leads to a stigmatization. "A threatening situation has now arisen for women wearing a headscarf – not just for teachers, there aren’t so many, but for all women who wear a headscarf. It’s unsettling," said Berlin’s former commissioner for foreigners, Barbara John.
The protestors say a headscarf ban won’t just hinder Muslim women’s emancipation by making it difficult for them to take up a profession, but also reinforce old prejudices and work against the very values of tolerance and openness enshrined in the constitution.
Actress and author Renan Demirkan, of Turkish origin, said she was convinced that the headscarf would be instrumentalized – not just by the Mullahs, but also by the very politicians who want to forbid it.
But the appeal against a headscarf ban has come in for scathing criticism from the strongly secular Turkish Alliance Berlin.
"In a time of increased fundamentalist activity, such naivete is hard to understand," the organization said in a statement on Tuesday. The organization has demanded that "all political and religious symbols" should be forbidden by law in all walks of public service and reminded that the present headscarf ban only relates to working in public service and doesn’t amount to a general ban.