If the SPD's Peer Steinbrück wins the September 22 elections, Yasemin Karakasoglu is expected to become Germany's next education minister. She's not a typical Social Democrat - in fact, she doesn't belong to any party.
Yasemin Karakasoglu is particularly good at pretending to be a cat. With a loud and lively voice, she reads a German fable to the children gathered around her, at times in Turkish, at times in German. The message is clear: even though the animals sound different in different languages, they all see things the same way. And in addition: people can be strong if they stick together despite their differences.
This educational approach is typical for the 48-year-old professor of intercultural education who belongs to the team of experts of Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück. If he becomes chancellor after the September 22 elections, Karakasoglu is expected to be appointed Germany's next education minister.
Karakasoglu has studied how the education system can be better organized to give immigrant children a better chance in life. The SPD has said that her ideas line up with their plans for education, and for that reason she was included in Steinbrück's team.
Doing her cat impression, Karakasoglu doesn't really come across as an important political figure, but she does seem sincere. The mother of an 11-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, Karakasoglu grew up in a German-Turkish home in the northwestern city of Wilhelmshaven. For her, the fable reading is not just an election PR stunt, even though the reading circle is taking place at a large SPD event in Berlin.
"As long as I don't have to bend over backwards, then a little show is OK," said Karakasoglu. Laughing, she describes how as a student she played in her own rock band. And as a lecturer, she said, you must be an entertainer to get young people to stay interested for more than two hours. Maybe that's the reason why the SPD has given her free rein to promote her policies as she sees fit.
'Education policy in Germany must change'
As a result, Karakasoglu's election campaign doesn't see her handing out pens and blowing up balloons. Instead, she moves from one discussion to another speaking of her education plans.
Among these plans is her intention to promote the teaching of languages from countries that send many immigrants to Germany. "Education must be interculturally oriented, from as young an age as possible," said Karakasoglu. "I was lucky with my middle-class educational upbringing." Her father, who came to Germany from Turkey to study, helped her to transition easily between cultures.
Karakasoglu hopes to introduce this easy transition and coexistence of cultures at the university level as well. The mutual recognition of university degrees is still not a given, despite the signing of the Bologna declaration by European education ministers in 1999.
"We need to provide incentives and better equip our universities, if they are to accept more international students," said Karakasoglu. She plans to further remove barriers to the acceptance of foreign university degrees.
Karakasoglu actually hadn't wanted to get into politics. Even today, she doesn't belong to any specific political party, not even the SPD for whom she's campaigning. She came to attention through her opinion of the controversial headscarf case that came before the Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest court, a decade ago.
The case concerned a young Turkish woman who had applied for a teaching job and who, as a Muslim, had wanted to wear a headscarf in the classroom. In Germany, however, schools are meant to remain neutral when it comes to religion, and so the state of Baden-Württemberg rejected the woman for the job. The authorities took the view that the wearing of a headscarf was an obvious visual demonstration of faith and, as such, not acceptable.
In her research Karakasoglu was able to point out that integration is only successful if a person's identity is preserved. Wearing a headscarf as an expression of religious affiliation or family tradition would qualify as a prerequisite, therefore, and in no way an obstacle to successful integration.
The court eventually decided in 2003 that the state of Baden-Württemberg did not have the legal basis to ban the woman from wearing a headscarf in the classroom.
But a year later, Baden-Württemberg became the first state to amend the law, banning teachers from wearing the headscarf. Several other states followed suit.
At the end of a long day of electioneering, Karakasoglu joins the rest of Steinbrück's team of experts on stage. Up at the front, Steinbrück is speaking about his future plans as chancellor. He speaks for more than an hour, not once mentioning his team. When they are finally asked to step forward, Karakasoglu is nowhere to be found. She has already left to spend the evening with her husband and children, who have been waiting for her all day.