Earlier this week, a German court ruled that a student cannot wear her niqab, or full-face veil, to class. Though some herald the decision as standing up for "Western values," critics call it patronizing.
No face-to-face communication - no school. That's what the administrative court in the German city of Osnabrück decided on Monday. An 18-year-old woman had taken the Sophie Scholl night school to court for not allowing her to wear her niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire face except for a small eye slit.
Judges ordered the woman to appear in person at the hearing on Monday to defend her reasons for wearing the religious garment. When she didn't do that because of the media attention that the case had attracted, the court decided that its only possible action was to deny her claim.
School officials didn't want the student to wear her niqab because they believe that the communication required for education would not be possible if only the student's eyes were visible.
The fact that the young woman, a German with Balkan roots, was so adamant about wearing the niqab suggests that she might not return to school if she is not allowed to wear her veil.
The court's decision "is a problematic signal sent to society," Teresa Bücker, the head of the editorial staff at women's online magazine "Edition F," told DW. "It shows that it's consciously accepted that women are excluded from getting an education."
A contentious issue
There is no broad agreement among Muslims about whether niqabs should be worn. Aziz Fooladvand, a sociologist and Islamic Studies scholar in Bonn, told DW that facial coverings are more common in very strict interpretations of Sunni Islam, such as that practiced in Saudi Arabia. But in Egypt, for example, wearing a niqab is generally frowned upon.
In 2010, France banned niqabs and burqas - full-body garments that leave only a mesh screen to see through - in public. Abdel Muti Al-Bayyumi, member of an influential council of clerics at Cairo's Al Azhar University, congratulated the French.
"The niqab has no basis in Islamic law," Al-Bayyumi said. "There is nothing in the Quran or Sunna that supports it."
Students who want to attend the reputable Al Azhar University are in the same situation as the woman in Osnabrück: They are not allowed to wear niqabs, burqas or any other garments that cover their faces.
'Patronizing and inappropriate'
Bücker, the journalist, said the school officials' actions seemed based on resentments that are out of place in a country that seeks to be open and accepting.
"If a school says they don't accept this, that's a sign that they haven't really tried to understand Muslim women," Bücker said. "Once you speak with a woman wearing a niqab, you'll quickly realize that this garment doesn't hinder communication at all."
Whether niqabs have a basis in the Quran or not, Gabriele Boos-Niazy believes that an adult woman should be allowed to make her own decisions - including what to wear to school. Boos-Niazy is the chairwoman of the German Alliance of Muslim Women and finds the court's decision "patronizing and inappropriate."
She doesn't buy that the thought behind banning the niqab comes from opposing male domination in Islam.
"If you think 'Oh, this poor, suppressed woman's life would be so much better with education,' you cannot deny that woman her education!" Boos-Niazy said. "The logical step would be to fill her up to the rim with education until she throws off her niqab."
Fooladvand, who also teaches Islamic religion at Bonn's Freiherr-vom-Stein school, said he would feel as if a student were speaking from behind a mask if she were to address him in a niqab. He has never had that happen - and he wouldn't allow it.
"There's a barrier there," Fooladvand said. "There would be no basis of trust between me and my student."
Shouldn't schools give in, though, rather than prevent women from getting an education?
"If we start talking like that, we'll have to make concessions again and again," Fooladvand said. "But we have to defend our values. We have to insist on them."