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Integration vs. Islam

September 26, 2010

Germany's best known and most outspoken feminist has called for a ban on headscarves for girls in German schools. Her new book, a plea for integration over Islamism, is likely to stir controversy.

Woman wearing a black headscarf, only her eyes are visible.
For Schwarzer, headscarves are more than garments - they're symbolsImage: AP

The headscarf is more than just a piece of fabric, more than just another article of clothing, and definitely not some hip lifestyle accessory that heavily made-up girls should use to add a little color to their wardrobe. No, the head scarf is a "flag and symbol of Islamists" which "followed a crusade all the way to the heart of Europe by the 1980s." Or so says iconic German feminist Alice Schwarzer in her new book, "The Great Cover Up: For Integration, against Islamism".

The book was recently published in German under the name "Die grosse Verschleierung: Fuer Integration, gegen Islamismus," and its strong statements been an injection of yet more fuel into the already burning integration debate in Germany.

A 'forceful act'

Teachers are no longer allowed to wear the head scarf in German public schools, and now Schwarzer has demanded the next step: Girls should be forbidden to wear it as well.

Montage of different head coverings
The veil or scarf cannot be dismissed as mere decorative fabric, Schwarzer arguesImage: AP/DW-Montage

"Only this forceful act would finally give the young woman from a fundamentalist orthodox family the chance to move with freedom and equality, at least within the confines of the schoolyard," Schwarzer writes.

Many readers are likely to react negatively to this demand for a headscarf ban. In themselves, bans clash with freedoms and rights that are supposed to be self-evident in Germany: the right to individual self-determination, the freedom of religion.

So why shouldn't schoolgirls be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they want to wear a headscarf to school? And wouldn't a ban serve to agitate exactly those young women who wear their headscarves as a symbol of their Islamic identity? Wouldn't they find it more important than ever to wear the garment?

Fundamental opposition of rights

Schwarzer and her co-authors - the book includes articles by a number of journalists and activists - sum up the central conflict as being the opposition between the right to individuality and the right to equality:

Young woman and girl wearing bright headscarves
Schwarzer argues that girls should have their heads uncovered in school.Image: BilderBox

"The wearing of the headscarf, which turns the girls into 'strangers' who are cut off socially and limited physically, comes along with a whole array of special treatments that their parents demand from the school. It is always a question of dividing the sexes or - insofar as this is refused by the German schools - giving girls special dispensation from swimming class or gym class, from school trips and from sex education classes."

If the right to individuality is enforced, then the basic right to equality is breached, and the right to equal opportunity is annulled, the argument goes. Islam expert Rita Breuer spent the year 2009 hanging around German schoolyards. She contributed an article about the pressure that girls who wear headscarves often put on the students who don't wear the scarf, making comments like: "Are you trying to look like a German?" or "The headscarf is our honor - don't you have any?"

Such schoolyard discussions are then padded out with Koran commentaries, Fatwas - Islamic legal pronouncements - sermons or in the Internet, Breuer says. In these places, she adds, "Islamic woman's clothing is propagated as the embodiment of her protection and her dignity, whereas the Western alternatives are seen as heinous and disgraceful […] I see no trace of girls having the 'freedom to decide' whether or not to wear the headscarf, which we so much like to suggest."

Alarmist message, balanced with facts

According to the book, fundamentalists are on the march in Germany. And the real problem, Schwarzer says, is the "systematic undermining of our educational apparatus and the legal system."

Cover of Schwarzer's book " Die Grosse Verschleierung"
The book has unleashed more debate on an already hot topic

Amidst such alarmist tones, it is almost surprising to find in the book a few sober facts that the journalist picked up from a recent study on Muslim women in Germany. For one: just a small minority of them actually wear a headscarf. Even among those who consider themselves "very religious," just half of the respondents said they covered their heads. Which means, conversely, that the vast majority of Muslims distance themselves from the fundamentalist dress code. And therefore from the Islamic organizations that dictate headscarves should be worn.

Schwarzer's aim is to take up a conversation with this large-but-quiet majority of Muslim women, and give them support. Up to now, Schwarzer says, Germany practiced "false dialogue" and "false tolerance." Dialog partners have been mostly representatives of fundamentalist organizations, and their demands have mostly been met, based on a fear of accusations of racism.

Sisters for the cause

Alice Schwarzer
Schwarzer wants a ban on headscarves in German schoolsImage: picture alliance

In certain Muslim authors, such as Djemila Benhabib, Schwarzer has found credible and vocal co-combatants in the fight against headscarves, Sharia law, and the oppression of women.

Benhabib grew up in Algeria, then went into exile in Paris and Canada. Today, the author and journalist works for the Canadian government. In Schwarzer's book she describes how she once dared to walk through the streets of Algeria without a veil, despite threats from the armed Islamist group GIA, essentially putting her life on the line.

The lesson she took out of this cannot be stated more clearly: "When religion rules over the state and society, we no longer move in the realm of possibility. We can't ask questions. … Only through separation of religion and state is it possible to find common ground. Let's call it the civic reference framework - far away from belief and disbelief - that is needed to create a civil society."

Germany could also learn a thing or two about civil society, and not only in terms of how it deals with Muslims. Germany itself is far from having a complete separation of church and state. Should a headscarf ban in schools ever make it into the German lawbooks, there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the banning, or not-banning, of symbols from other religions. There is already a legal decision that bans the display of Christian crosses in schools in Germany. But in practice, its effects have been marginal.

Author: Aya Bach (jen)
Editor: Susan Houlton