Headscarf Controversy

Time for Clear-headed Thinking

Emel Abidin-Algan got to know arranged marriage and the headscarf from personal experience. Here, the daughter of the founder of the Turkish Milli Görüs movement argues for an end to the Turkish government's headscarf ban

The headscarf ban imposed at Turkish universities must be lifted immediately. Bans such as this represent an imposition on personal privacy. This makes them extreme, and one form of extremism can only succeed in begetting another. The headscarf today is increasingly falling victim to misappropriation.

For many of the wearers it represents a badge of group identity, a religious symbol that has become an expression of their political resistance to the dictates of the state. The currently fashionable trend towards exploiting its potential for flirtatiousness is something that appals me. I find it difficult to believe that the devout female adherents of the prophet would have spent their time back then in front of the mirror dolling themselves up before leaving their houses.

An atmosphere of mutual respect

I hope that once this restrictive and one-sided ban has been lifted tensions between the sides will ease, and seriousness and objectivity will be allowed their rightful places in the discussion, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It is the refusal to engage in dialogue more than the wearing of what has become a highly symbolic article of clothing that is the real and very significant danger here, in my opinion.

I myself wore a headscarf for more than 30 years, so I know what it feels like for a woman; how she thinks. If the headscarf is connected to a sense of identity, with moral values and an instilled unnatural sense of shame, these women can hardly be expected to discard it, or to unveil themselves, just like that. A woman's right to education must not be infringed upon because of this: that is a right that must remain inviolable.

Three years ago I gave up wearing a headscarf and joined the ranks of the "inconspicuous". It's a decision that has changed my whole perception of women wearing the veil and of those who do not very profoundly. I now see things that I didn't notice when I myself wore a headscarf.

Taking a closer look at the religious sources

The setting aside of my own headscarf was not a decision that I took lightly. It grew out of a combination of my own experiences, gathered gradually while going without a headscarf in public, by my involvement in the headscarf debate, and through the opportunities presented to me in my position as chairperson of the Islamic Women's Association, to take a closer look at the oft-cited religious sources.

It was only when, following my research, and in the wake of my new experiences, I made my decision to stop wearing the headscarf that the reactions of my fellow Muslims made me aware that I had unconsciously blundered into a minefield.

(photo: Stephan Schmidt)
Only when each woman is free to decide for herself, says Emel Abidin-Algan, will the headscarf be deprived of its divisive symbolic power

​​Independent research, the critical questioning of tradition or of the contemporary situation are things that Muslims are unused to, things that are not encouraged in the context of traditional hierarchical thinking. The result is a lack of viable arguments in favour of the headscarf today. The argument that a woman wearing a headscarf is less likely to be molested is ridiculous. Here in Germany at least, no man would molest a woman simply because she wasn't wearing a headscarf.

What about covering up for men?

In earlier times, covering up was seen as a way of neutralising female allurements. It created a kind of distance that enabled the continuation of communication between men and women. The covering up of the body at that time was nowhere near as restrictive for women in terms of their social mobility as it unfortunately has become in the contemporary world – where career prospects are concerned, for example.

I also believe that the argument about covering up the attractions of the female body is nonsense nowadays. Within Europe, at least, one must ask whether there is any necessity to neutralise the attractions of the female body? What are attractions anyway? Let's look at it from the other side. Are men not attractive to women also? And, if so, why shouldn't they be the ones to cover up? Do women not have erotic fantasies?

Perhaps a survey could be held to help to clear up this imaginative discrepancy.

Ill-informed on sources

I have been astonished by just how little Muslims know about the theological sources of the debate. Surely now, with the headscarf playing such a disproportionately contentious role in a struggle conducted in the name of Islam, people should be aware of the fact that what is now an iconic political symbol and rallying point was originally no more than a peripheral item in a popular folk religion. Why is such misappropriation tolerated?

It is mainly down to belief as a sense of duty, not as a conviction based on first-hand knowledge and experience. The idea of obeying God's will and observing a religious duty is still very often enough for many women who are content not to question any further.

None of the Muslims I have talked to so far, for example, have known anything of the basis in revelation (asbab an nuzul), the historical context behind the two verses of the Koran that relate to covering of the body. The fact that the regulations on which parts of their bodies it is that men and women have to cover can be traced back to a decision made by scholars after the death of the prophet doesn’t appear to interest anyone either.

It is this basis in revelation, but also my own experience, which has shown me that the recommendations on covering up found in the Koran have a practical intention, that has been completely superseded nowadays due to changes in the self-perceptions of men and women.

In those early times there was a straightforward, practical need for the covering of the body. Women found themselves being molested by men who mistook them for slaves, while the male predilection for female cleavage meant that such men were likely to find themselves on the receiving end. Since the people at that time were unable to help themselves, it was left to God to intervene on their behalf with two revelations.

Self-sufficient arrogance

I am very much opposed to this phenomenon today whereby a group can make use of externals such as the headscarf or the covering of the body to dictate what religion and religiousness are, or, worse still, what decency is. This is discriminating against all those who choose not to make use of such externals as the headscarf but who, like me, consider themselves very religious nevertheless. Most non-Muslims in Germany, however, associate the headscarf with Islam, without feeling any need to question any further.

It is the starkness, the unnatural look of some women with headscarves that has struck me most strongly since my change of perspective: they look to me almost as if they had just been discharged from hospital, their head wounds swathed in bandages. I also very often come across a self-sufficient arrogance. Like "wrapped-up sweets" was the perception of young Muslim women given to me by one non-Muslim man whose opinion I once asked.

That's why I tend to find it very humiliating that the outsider, the non-Muslim, associates the headscarf with Islam and believes that women who wear headscarves are more religious than those who do not.

What does the headscarf have to do with religion?

I now believe it to be very dangerous to have such a close association between an article of clothing and a religion. It means that if I decide that the piece of clothing is no longer necessary it is almost as if I were deciding to reject the religion itself. Today, without my headscarf, I feel much more religious than I ever did before. I have become closer to people and find myself wondering all the more what the headscarf has to do with religion.

But prohibition is not the proper way to achieve dialogue. What we need is to develop comprehensible reasoning that will finally allow us to engage in differentiated discussions and give women the courage to make genuine changes to their lives, enable them to decide things for themselves.

Therefore there are political reasons for rejecting bans: the liberation of Muslim women, the freeing of men from their image as harassers of women, and the need to effect lasting change to some of the lingering archaic attitudes to men and women in Muslim societies.

Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany could work together to set the ball rolling, give impetus to the initiating of a proper dialogue that would help women both in Germany and Turkey. The very traditional social structures that persist in Turkey make the question of social relations there considerably more difficult. It just means that we in Germany need to be even more aware both of our opportunities and of our shared responsibility.

Emel Abidin-Algan

© Emel Abidin-Algan/Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

This article first appeared in Die Welt newspaper.

The writer works as a communications manager in Berlin. Daughter of the founder of the controversial Islamic organisation Milli Görüs, she went through an arranged marriage and is mother to six children. She was for many years chairperson of the Islamic Women’s Association. She decided to stop wearing a headscarf three years ago. In 2007 she was the first German Muslim to be awarded the Protestant prize “Das unerschrockene Wort” (the fearless word – presented to those unafraid to speak their minds).

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