There are very few women and girls in Germany wearing a full-face veil such as the niqab or the burqa — most likely a mere two-digit number. A recent verdict handed down by a Hamburg court, however, has sparked a fierce debate with surprising front lines: feminists, at least partially, find themselves on the same side as political right-wingers. And Germany's Green party is particularly divided on the issue.
Recently, the Hamburg court backed the case of a student's mother. According to the ruling, her 16-year-old daughter is allowed to wear the niqab in class. The school authority had attempted to ban her from wearing the garment during lessons. Veils like the niqab and the burqa cover a woman's entire face, sometimes even the eyes.
In their ruling, the judges in particular invoked the girl's "right to unconditional protection of her freedom of religion." Limiting that freedom, they added, was only permissible on a legal basis, which does not currently exist in Hamburg's education legislation.
Education laws made at state level
Since German education laws are made at state level, it is up to every single state to provide its own laws for schools and universities. Lower Saxony's education laws, for example, have been stipulating since 2017 that "female and male students are not allowed to significantly hamper communication with those involved in school life by means of behavior or clothing." This outlaws full-face veils. Similarly, students in Bavaria must "not cover their faces, except when this is required by school rules."
There are regulations at the federal level, too — for example, female federal officials and female soldiers are not allowed to cover their faces when they're on duty. Members of the public must not wear full-face veils when they drive a car. Likewise, the niqab and the burqa must be removed when authorities examine a woman's identity.
Unlike in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark, Germany has no general ban on wearing full-face veils in public.
Read more: 'Burqa bans' across Europe
Closing the legal loophole
Hamburg's government, made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, will now make an effort to close the gap in the city-state's school legislation. Ties Rabe, the senator responsible for Hamburg's schools, has already announced an imminent ban on full-face veils: "In school, teachers as well as pupils should have an open, unobstructed face. It is the only way schools and classes can function," he said.
Hamburg's deputy mayor Katharina Fegebank from the Green party agrees. "The burqa and the niqab are, for me, symbols of oppression," she said. Her position is also relevant ahead of the February 23 Hamburg elections. According to the latest opinion polls, the Greens are only slightly less popular than the SPD — which means Fegebank does have a chance to win the city-state's top post. The opposition parties in Hamburg's parliament, the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Free Democrats (FDP) and the far-right AfD, also support banning niqabs and burqas from classrooms.
Other German states are following suit. In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, which is governed by a coalition of Greens and Christian Democrats, Culture Minister Susanne Eisenmann (CDU) has also announced a ban on veils through adjustments to schools legislation. "Teaching is based on open communication, which also manifests itself via gestures and facial expressions. A covered face prevents such open communication."
Freedom of religion, she added, had its limits if teachers and students were "no longer able, literally, to look in each other's faces." Baden-Württemberg's state premier Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) agreed: "I believe that, in an open society, people should show their faces."
In the Green camp, such clear statements have, however, been controversial. Like their fellow party member Fegebank, Baden-Württemberg's Green party leaders Sandra Detzer and Oliver Hildenbrand call the burqa and the niqab "symbols of oppression". Simultaneously though they're accusing Education Minister Susanne Eisenmann of "pursuing an agenda which ultimately only strengthens the far right."
Filiz Polat, migration policy spokesperson for the Greens' parliamentary group, believes that it is one of the features of a democratic society that people can wear religious symbols — or choose not to do so. In her view, the constitution does not allow for a general ban. By the same token, it was also constitutionally required that Germany does not bar devout Muslims from access to its educational system by implementing a ban on veils. The Greens' parliamentary group in another northern German state, Schleswig-Holstein, had argued along those lines in the state parliament before voting against a full-face veil ban at universities.
Danger of marginalization
Bernhard Kempen, the president of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV), has an equally differentiated view. For him, it is out of the question that women wearing full-face veils participate in seminars, which are usually made up of small groups of people. He would, however, have no such reservations with respect to large-audience lectures. The German Philologists' Association (DPhV), by contrast, advocates a ban on niqabs and burqas both in schools and universities.
Seyran Ates, a campaigner for women's rights and the co-founder of the liberal Ibn-Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin, would prefer, for the sake of peace in schools, to remove all religious and ideological symbols from classrooms — not only those referring to Islam. Islam scholar Riem Spielhaus, meanwhile, warned that marginalizing those who wear burqas and niqabs was conducive to radicalization of Muslims. Instead, they should be invited to a dialogue.
It remains a fact that there are very few women in Germany who wear full-face veils. Therefore, Germany's other northern city-state of Bremen, for example, sees no reason to modify its school legislation. There was not a single known case, according to Bremen's school authority — so therefore there was no requirement to change any laws.