On Muslim women and the Islamic dress code

The assumption that God demands submission can mislead women and turn conflicts of conscience into desperation. After all, it is women who are cheated out of their life before death by the social limitations associated with covering their heads and bodies. An essay by Emel Zeynelabidin

By Emel Zeynelabidin

Belief in life after death is one of the central tenets of a Muslim's faith. To this day, the Koran still exerts a strong influence on the lives of practicing Muslims. I, however, have now spent ten years without a headscarf, inconspicuous, submerged in the majority society and occupied with understanding that I lived over 30 years with certain beliefs that have been constantly correcting themselves through my new way of life over the past decade.

One of the most important things I have learned during this time is that not wearing a headscarf is not a bad thing. My hair, now blown freely by the wind, doesn't bother any man. So why should it bother "God"? It is strange to believe that God would be upset by a woman deciding for herself how to dress.

If behaviour is motivated by a mental world that divides life into this life and the afterlife, how are Muslims and non-Muslims to communicate with one another? What image of God and women is behind such an idea?

These are just a few of the questions I can ask myself only now, having gained many new experiences, like someone seeing the world through newly opened eyes.

In hindsight, I have experienced personal progress. I no longer have difficulties wearing light clothing on my arms and legs when necessary or leaving my hair uncovered. That takes courage and confidence for a woman raised to feel a sense of shame and almost entirely cut off from her body for decades by very specific clothing rules. Today, I can dress flexibly without denying my faith and my identity as a Muslim.

The behaviour of practicing Muslims is based on an image of God that anyone seeking to enter into dialogue with members of the faith ought to know. "God", so it is said, is an authoritarian lawmaker who knows everything best and demands obedience for his commandments and bans, all of which are derived from the holy Koran and the statements of the Prophet Muhammad. God promises the faithful rich rewards after death for their obedience in this life. Those who believe in this system accept disadvantages in their social, professional and personal lives. It makes no difference that these rules and regulations date back more than a thousand years.

A devout Muslim reading the Koran in the Fatih Mosque in Essen, Germany (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"Islam today is passed on as a faith of books and rules. But young people need space in which they can develop their own religious ideas, so as to learn that religion is only an offer to create a world in which 'God' can also find a place in their life beyond religion and without 'holy books'," writes Emel Zeynelabidin

Hierarchic gaps, dichotomous thought patterns

Practicing Muslims believe in what they have learned. That means it is important to look at what they are taught. For generations, Islamic teaching has been dominated by the taqlid tradition, the imitation of what clerics determined as fixed duties in religious practice many centuries ago. This principle was then supplemented by patriarchal traditions. To this day, these traditions' hierarchic distinctions between old and young, women and men continue to plant thought patterns such as "good and bad" and "permitted and banned" in the minds of subsequent generations. The covering up of Muslim women is part of this religious practice, with its moral yardstick for "strong and weak faith".

Yet this man-made yardstick has little to do with what is understood as faith within Islam. Nowhere is it written that God or the Prophet Muhammad want rules on clothing. It is the scholars who once stipulated traditions in the so-called "Sharia", the religious laws that are observed to this day.

Today, as a "normally dressed woman", I ask myself: if covering up the head and body is supposed to be a "God-given law" for women, but only a certain group of women obeys this law for the sake of life after death in order to be moral and dignified Muslims, how does God see the morality and dignity of all those women in this life who don't belong to that specific group and don't obey those rules?

I find it questionable that those who define themselves primarily in terms of their religiously founded rules and rituals do not consider it necessary to check their ideas' viability in the context of contemporary life. Ideas are thus passed on to subsequent generations and have to be followed without discussion.

Betul Ulusoy, left (photo: re:publica/Gregor Fischer)
Political hype over a piece of fabric: the case of the 26-year-old law student Betul Ulusoy recently prompted a heated debate on Berlin's law on neutrality in the public sector. The young woman, a volunteer at DITIB's Sehitlik Mosque, had applied for a trainee position with the authorities in the district of Berlin-Neukolln insisted on wearing her headscarf to work

Space to develop one's own religious ideas

Islam today is passed on as a faith of books and rules. But young people need space in which they can develop their own religious ideas, so that they can learn that religion is only an offer to create a world in which "God" can also find a place in their lives beyond religion and without "holy books".

The general knowledge taught at state schools as part of a pupil's compulsory education forms the basis for interpersonal communication. The strict religious teaching that Muslims receive in addition to that, however, harbours a risk of isolating a minority for whom their own religion is too much of a focus. The identity policies established as part of the integration policy over the past few decades by Germany's Islamic associations, such as the "Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs" (DITIB), have recently entered the classroom in the form of faith-based religious education for Muslim school pupils.

When I co-founded Germany's first Islamic kindergarten and first Islamic private school in 1987 and 1989, pedagogical concepts or schoolbooks for children from Muslim families did not yet exist. The first and only kindergarten teacher of Turkish origin, who also wore a headscarf, became our first employee. The purpose of founding the school was "to impart an identity to Muslim children that enables them to integrate into a pluralist society without having to assimilate themselves."

When I look back now, almost 30 years later, we seem to have set a ball rolling with our rather ill thought-out pioneering initiative. More and more kindergartens for Muslim families are being set up all over Germany, along with institutes of Islamic theology that train teachers to provide religious education in schools for pupils from Muslim families, analogue to the Christian religious education classes on offer in many German schools.

Betul Ulusoy, a Berlin law student who wears a headscarf, attended our school for the first six years of her education. Her application for a position as a trainee at a local authority in Berlin-Neukolln was overshadowed by misunderstandings. The matter recently culminated in a media hype whipped up by the Berlin daily newspaper "Tagesspiegel". The local authority in question had to put a stop to the matter by issuing a press release defending itself against accusations of discrimination.

Emel Zeynelabidin (photo: Emel Zeynelabidin)
Emel Zeynelabidin was born in Istanbul and has lived in Germany since 1961. She studied English Literature and was actively involved in establishing educational institutions in Berlin's Islamic community for decades. In 2005, she left the community and stopped wearing the headscarves she had worn for religious reasons for 30 years. Since then, she has written books and articles and worked to improve understanding between Germany's Muslim communities and the non-Muslim majority society

Khadija as a role model

Those not familiar with the case may well have wondered why young women in particular, despite obvious confidence, cannot relinquish the demonstrative exhibition of their faith and submission to "God" in favour of improving their professional prospects and interpersonal relations. The Prophet was, after all and among other things, allegedly concerned with giving women human rights. General education has a very high priority in Islam, regardless of gender. Muhammad's first wife of many years, Khadija, was an educated and successful merchant.

Today, however, Islam is portrayed as a system of rules, rituals and laws, their purpose being to secure men's domination over women. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan are shamelessly disregarding what Muhammad gradually introduced for the benefit of women in his society.

The Koran states unambiguously that there is "no compulsion in religion". Nevertheless, the heads of state in these countries force their female citizens, through legal regulations introduced in the name of God, to cover themselves completely in public. These women have no choice. All this, however, restricts their freedom of movement and robs them of their right to education and work.

Global community looks on and does nothing

So what is the matter with the Islamic organisations that claim to represent Islam? What is the matter with the societies that have worked for generally applicable human rights beyond the bounds of religions? Women are stewing beneath their hijabs, niqabs and buqas in the name of Islam, are being beaten and locked up for insubordination, while the global community looks on and does nothing!

To date, integration policy does not seem to have concerned itself with overcoming hurdles and barriers. A serious rapprochement process would be hard work. There is still great distance and widespread mutual ignorance between Germany's Muslims and non-Muslims, both of which have prompted growing racism among certain non-Muslims and radicalisation as a dissociation strategy among certain Muslims.

Thinking in hierarchic structures in the form of a group process harbours treacherous pitfalls. The assumption that God demands submission can mislead women in particular and can turn conflicts of conscience into desperation. After all, it is women who are being cheated out of their life before death by the social limitations associated with covering up their heads and bodies. For the word of God reaches each individual only as interpretation. Claiming to understand it and know God's will is rather presumptuous.

Emel Zeynelabidin

© Emel Zeynelabidin 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire