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Should headscarves be allowed in the classroom?

In 2003, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court ruled it illegal to prohibit Muslim teachers from wearing headscarves at school. Eight German states enacted laws to ensure the headscarf stays out of the classroom.

Ten years ago this week, Ferestha Ludin celebrated the verdict she had fought so hard to win: the German Federal Court ruled that the 31-year old Muslim teacher could not be barred by school administrators from wearing her headscarf in the classroom. The victory was short-lived, however, when eight German states enacted their own religious "neutrality" laws.

A decade later the verdict's results continue to spur controversy and leave some asking what is more oppressive: wearing a headscarf or excluding those who do?

Portrait of Fereshta Ludin in blue headscarf Photo: dpa

Fereshta Ludin: 'The results were detrimental'

For Fereshta Ludin, that day ten years ago was hardly a victory. She generally doesn't make much of the verdict's anniversary, but this year gives her pause.

"Ten years is a long time when you think about it," Ludin said. "But it's not a happy occasion. Maybe I celebrated the initial decision, but the results thereafter were detrimental."

The results were a series of "neutrality" laws in eight German states, banning religious symbols in public classrooms - unless they are Christian, in some cases.

Looking back on the case, Ludin said the bans spiraled into the private sector, as well.

"The headscarf bans were all pre-emptive because there was no evidence that children suffer under a teacher with a headscarf - to the contrary," Ludin said. "Companies started to say, 'we don't want to hire an Islamist. Suddenly, it wasn't just teachers, but Muslim women in general who suffered from the decision."

Nevertheless, supporters of the ban argue that children could be negatively influenced by the headscarf and that it symbolizes oppression of women. State by state, many of the school statutes permit Christian symbols because they are considered compatible to Western society.

"People assume that Muslim women are being oppressed by their husbands, that they have no rights and no freedom to move," Ludin said, "But it's precisely these women who are being denied the opportunity to work."

Ripple effects

Degree for naught? Serife Ay is not allowed to teach in her state's public schools because she wears a headscarf Copyright: Serife Ay (Privat)

Serife Ay is not allowed to teach in her state's public schools because she wears a headscarf

Serife Ay dreamt of teaching German in her own classroom. She loved the language so much, that her friends teased her for her overly proper grammatical musings.

"They called me a 'know-it-all,' and told me to speak real German with them," Ay laughs.

After her two-year teacher's training, Ay was well on her path to the front of the classroom. Then she started wearing a headscarf. She knew it could derail her career, but she considered it part of her identity.

"I was offered a full-time position at a school in Duisburg," Ay said. In this moment she was forced to decide - take the position and remove her headscarf, or stay true to her beliefs, "to be myself, to be authentic and unfortunately give up my beloved career."

Serife Ay followed her heart, and since she is not permitted to practice her career with a headscarf, her dreams of teaching German have since fallen by the wayside. Where there are no formal hurdles in place, informal challenges present difficulties.

"This discriminatory rule didn't just affect my chances in the public classroom, but it has made it impossible for teachers to find positions in private schools," Ay said, adding that private schools are hesitant to hire teachers with headscarves because they think parents will complain.

Legal counsel

Young women shouldn't have to chose between their religion and their career, said Amine Tasdan, project collaborator for the Berlin-based Network Against Discrimination of Muslims.

Based on the sheer number of complaints they receive, the Network Against Discrimination of Muslims reports that the topic remains relevant ten years after the ruling. The network offers free counsel and legal assistance to those who encounter injustice.

"When women report discrimination, we document the case and share it with our cooperating partners, if necessary," said Amine Tasdan. "The party in question will be notified, and we seek to find a solution that benefits everyone."

For students like Serife Ay, there are only a handful of options: pack your bags and move to a state that allows teachers to wear a headscarf, seek out private institutes, or become a religion teacher, where head coverings are permitted in class.

"But these alternatives aren't enough to cover the demand," Tasdan said.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state - and home to the majority of Germany's Muslims - a series of professionals have challenged the ban at various levels, citing infringement of religious freedom. Most recently, two teachers have appealed to the German Federal Court.

Three German Federal Court judges standing side by side

Two new headscarf discrimination cases are headed for the Federal Constitutional Court

Jörg Harm, spokesperson for the state's Ministry of Schools and Further Education said it was not the ministry's job to comment on the controversial ban but to uphold the court's decision whenever it is made.

Although Harm said there is currently no teacher shortage in his state of North Rhine Westphalia, the European Commission published "Key Data on Education in Europe," in 2012 citing Germany as one of the EU countries facing teacher shortage.

"Considering the existing shortage of teachers, it's tragic that qualified personnel can't be hired, simply because the law forbids it," Tasdan said.

Institutionalized discrimination?

In 2009 Human Rights Watch published "Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality," a report based on interviews with Muslim women and officials in Germany. According to the report, "Those states that ban religious clothing but still allow Christian symbols explicitly discriminate on the grounds of faith."

As a result, the report calls the ban discriminatory not only on religious grounds, but also based on gender. "These bans on wearing the headscarf in employment undercut individual autonomy and choice, privacy, and self expression, in similar ways to how they are violated in countries where women are forced to wear the headscarf."

Ferestha Ludin, the defendant in the original case, lived under a dictatorship for the first 14 years of her life. When her family found asylum in Germany, she embraced democracy and freedom of expression. She said those same principles should foster acceptance.

"It's important that we find a way for everyone that is fair and that represents society," Ludin said. "We can't pretend that our society doesn't have women who wear a headscarf and blockade them from the career field of education."

Acceptance through awareness

A picture of the German-Palestinian political scientist, Sawson Chebli. (Photo: Karlheinz Schindler from ARD television)

Sawson Chebli founded JUMA as a platform to give young German Muslims a mainstream voice

Sawsan Chebli is the first foreign policy advisor to Berlin's ministry for interior and sports. Her role is to build bridges between Muslim communities and state organizations, as well as promote intercultural competencies of the ministry. She founded the Berlin-based JUMA, "Young, Muslim, Active," which seeks to give German Muslim youth a voice. She said the women in the group are especially affected by the headscarf ban.

"Most of the women in this group wear a headscarf and are affected negatively by this law," Chebli said. "Some of them study law, some of them want to become teachers and fight for their rights to become teachers, lawyers and judges, even."

Chebli said society needs to see Muslim women in more public roles, because with greater awareness comes greater acceptance.

"You have young women who wear the headscarf, who are talented, educated and who say, 'Nobody forces us to wear the headscarf. We wear it despite the fact our parents don't want us to wear it, but we still do so because we are convinced it's part of our identity.'" Chebli said. "The more we hear these voices, the more it may change something."

Beyond optimistic predictions, Chebli said Germany's greying demographics will force lawmakers to renegotiate the ban.

"We need young people," Chebli said. "If you look at the demographics in Germany it will be very important to take everybody with you and not lose a single one because they have a headscarf."

She said mutual acceptance is growing with each generation.

"I see that many people are turning away from negative media images and tuning to the reality on the ground, " Chebli said. "On the ground we see a third generation of young Muslims who are educated, talented, who have a voice, of course to seek a job and career and whom we can't ignore."

Uncertain future

For now, young teacher Serife Ay said she does not regret her decision to wear a headscarf, though she knew it would bring its share of challenges. She continues to seek work in her field.

"I hope to find a position in the education branch - whether it's as a socialworker or at a university," Ay said. The German classroom is on hold, but the love of the language remains.

As a German with Turkish parents, Ay said "I wanted to break stereotypes. To show that a sound education language is possible for all children."

In Ludin's experience, it was never the children who detested her headscarf - it was the adults. She was never fighting for the headscarf itself, she said. She was fighting for self-determination. She remains focused on fostering intercultural dialogue. Even in her own home.

"I'm a mother, and I sent my own children to a Catholic pre-school," Ludin said. "It was never a question of restricting new perspectives. The more diverse, the better when it comes to childrens' development."