Heated debate on all sides

The headscarf ruling handed down by the Karlsruhe judges on 13 March met with divided reactions. While some are calling it a landmark decision, others see it not as a solution but as a potential source of further problems. Canan Topcu outlines the various positions

By Canan Topçu

Politicians and celebrities, headmasters and teachers, lawyers and journalists, Islamic scholars and theologians, as well as representatives of Germany's Islamic associations – all have had their say on the decision made by the judges of the German Constitutional Court. Young Muslim women with and without headscarves are also speaking up – but mostly in social networks. They particularly resent all those who claim to know what's going on in their minds and what attitude drives them, or who is forcing them, to cover their hair.

The dividing line in the debate on the headscarf ruling runs between staunch supporters of the court's decision, which in their opinion finally eliminates the unequal treatment of religions, and its critics, who question the neutrality of the headscarf-wearing teachers and predict that the judgment will have "disastrous consequences".

"Excellent step in the right direction"

Berlin lawyer Betul Ulusoy wrote in her popular blog shortly after the ruling was announced: "Today, I walk the streets as a victor – unhurried and satisfied, with my head held high. My headscarf has been symbolically trampled underfoot for long enough. Now it can finally be happy, meet others eye-to-eye, enjoy the unusually lofty heights." Upon learning of the verdict, Ulusoy shed tears of joy and relief. The lifting of the general ban on wearing headscarves in schools was "a major and excellent step in the right direction," she says.

Others have expressed different views on the decision, such as the outgoing mayor of Berlin-Neukolln Heinz Buschkowsky (Social Democrat), the former president of the Constitutional Court Hans-Jurgen Papier and the politician Winfried Mack (Christian Democrat) from the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Mack, who is his party's deputy parliamentary leader, sees the ruling as an "expression of misconceived tolerance".

According to Mack, the headscarf is imbued with strong political symbolism. He has said that one look at the Islamic world shows that whenever a region starts leaning toward theocracy, one of the first moves is to make head coverings compulsory for women. "We should not encourage those who want to introduce traditional Islam," he says. In Germany, as a "predominantly Christian country", values have developed that include equal rights for women. According to Mack, the wearing of headscarves runs contrary to these values and puts integration at risk. "When a teacher wears a headscarf, it puts pressure on children and their parents."

Heinz Buschkowsky (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
The outgoing district mayor of Berlin-Neukolln, Heinz Buschkowsky, sharply criticised the latest headscarf ruling from the Federal Constitutional Court, calling it a "catastrophe". Buschkowsky told the Deutschlandfunk radio station that the judgment, which declared blanket headscarf bans in schools to be inadmissible, would convey "completely the wrong message" at the expense of liberal Muslims in Germany

Increasing social pressure on secular Muslims?

While former Constitutional Court judge Hans-Jurgen Papier focuses in his critique of the ruling on the legal consequences, predicting that the headscarf decision will lead to "unpleasant disputes", Buschkowsky argues in a similar vein to his Christian Democrat colleague, predicting that the judgement will result in the proliferation of "old traditions" in Muslim communities. He recently described these "old traditions" in the Interview of the Week on the Deutschlandfunk radio station as follows: "The woman has to obey, she has to be pure and submissive, and she is the property of her husband. And the message is: granny wears a headscarf, the aunts wear headscarves, mother wears a headscarf and the teacher also wears one."

The verdict, he feels, will help substantially increase "the social pressure in the communities on secular, liberal Muslims". In his opinion, those who handed down this ruling "don't have a clue about what's going on in areas and city districts like Neukolln – or in Mannheim (...) or in Duisburg or Dortmund". He thinks that the judges have "unnecessarily razed a pillar of our society", thus sending out "completely the wrong message". The verdict, he says, is "a further caving in" to those "who roam the country like loudspeakers, constantly claiming that they are disadvantaged, that they are victims".

Anyone conjuring up such menacing scenarios evidently knows nothing of all those headscarf wearers who are tired of repeatedly having to explain that they have not in any way been coerced into covering their hair. Of note here is how politicians and journalists who have been criticising the judges' decision claim to know all about what is going on in the minds of these women – for example that the headscarf is a demonstration of their religious beliefs or political attitudes and one to which pupils will be helplessly subjected.

In fact, the very headscarf wearers who have opted for the profession of teacher tend to be self-confident and intelligent young women who were usually not lucky enough in their own school days to have teachers who abided by their duty of neutrality. Almost all of these young Muslim women have experienced discrimination by teachers as a result of their religious affiliation and because they wore headscarves.

Growing self-confidence

One of these young women who were born and raised in Germany, who obtained academic degrees here or are still studying, and who would like to be perceived as citizens of this country, is Elifcansu Guler. The 25-year-old is studying German language and literature, history and education in Heidelberg and wants to be a teacher. She will sit her first state board exam this autumn. Her headscarf has not prevented her from pursuing her chosen career and studying to be a teacher. "I thought to myself: who knows what things will be like in five years?"

She has been covering her head since she was 17. It was her own wish, and it led to conflicts with her family. Neither her parents nor her older brother thought it was a good idea. Her brother didn't speak to her for four years, but in the meantime their relationship is back to normal, says Guler.

Muslim teacher Fereshta Ludin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Gerlach)
Disputes on the headscarf have a long history. More than 11 years ago, Fereshta Ludin fought for her right to wear a headscarf as a teacher in the service of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, bringing her case before Germany's Constitutional Court. In a 2003 decision, the court ruled that headscarf bans are possible if they have a legal basis, after which several German states adopted blanket bans. Karlsruhe has now overturned this controversial headscarf ruling

The young woman learned of the Karlsruhe ruling in a text message sent by a friend. "Congratulations on the lifting of the headscarf ban," she read, and didn't know at first what to make of this information. "I immediately went online and began following the news," she reports. But she reacted differently to Betul Ulusoy: there were no dancing or tears of joy. 

"Will this really change things?" was the first question that went through her mind. But she also perceived some changes in herself. "My confidence suddenly grew. It did me good to receive confirmation from a high office that wearing a headscarf doesn't mean I am anticonstitutional or dangerous," says the young woman.

In the following days, however, as Elifcansu Guler read statements made by politicians who felt confirmed in their advocacy of the headscarf by the judges' ruling, she had a distinct feeling of unease. She grew angry at all the politicians who had done nothing in past to combat the headscarf ban, yet were now letting themselves be quoted in the media as proponents of the judgment.

Shifting of the problem

Among those who are pleased about the Karlsruhe verdict is Durre Ajam Loun. The aspiring teacher has been wearing a headscarf since she was 14 and likewise did not let herself be discouraged from studying to be a teacher. The daughter of Pakistani parents, Loun was born in Germany, studied German, philosophy and ethics, and last autumn passed her second state board exam.

Now 26 years old, she has not been moved to rejoicing by the judges' decision, because in her opinion, it has not created any true legal clarity. "It has only shifted the problem," she says. Although a school must now prove that a teacher poses a concrete threat before it can prohibit her from teaching in a headscarf, the verdict contains a passage stipulating that a ban can still be pronounced if there is a "definite risk of a disturbance of the peace at the school".

Erdal Toprakyaran, director of the Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tubingen, also points to this qualification of the judgement. For this reason, she feels that the ruling is not a cause for celebration. It is quite possible that teachers who wear headscarves will encounter resistance and that parents will protest against them – especially in rural areas. "If these parents refuse to have their children taught by a teacher wearing a headscarf, that already constitutes a disturbance of the peace at the school," explains Toprakyaran. She also mentions another scenario: head teachers or teachers who do not want any headscarf-wearers on the staff could subtly sway the mood against such teachers and indirectly motivate parents to protest.

Elifcansu Guler (left) with her sister Banu (photo: Canan Topcu)
Will the verdict actually change anything? Elifcansu Guler (left) says: "My confidence suddenly grew. It did me good to receive confirmation from a high office that wearing a headscarf doesn't mean I am anticonstitutional or dangerous"

Study: young people have nothing against the headscarf

Pupils at any rate seem to have fewer problems with teachers wearing headscarves than those politicians and journalists who tend to use the argument of a teacher's obligation to neutrality when arguing against such teachers. On the same day the ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court was announced, a study came out on the attitudes of young people in Germany.

Entitled "Deutschland Postmigrantisch II" (Post-migrant Germany II), the study reports that 71 per cent of the 16–25-year-olds surveyed think that teachers should have the right to wear a headscarf in the classroom. "And among those still in school, more than three quarters are against a headscarf ban," say the researchers.

Naika Foroutan, a social scientist at Humboldt University and director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (BIM), interprets this finding as follows: "For the younger generation, the headscarf is evidently not a foreign or fear-inspiring sign, but merely a religious symbol that is part of the faith of another individual."

Canan Topcu
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor