Boxer Zeina Nassar's fight to wear a headscarf in the ring
Berlin boxer Zeina Nassar's fighting spirit has won her plenty of titles, but her battle to wear the hijab in the ring has also made her an equal opportunities champion.
Today, the 21-year-old, who discovered female boxing by watching online videos as a teenager, is a German amateur featherweight champion and dares to dream of Olympic glory. Her path so far took all the determination she could muster, Nassar revealed, sipping an iced coffee at a cafe in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, where she grew up.
"It was as if I had to prove twice as much because not only am I a woman who boxes, but I also wear the headscarf," she said, during a break between gruelling training sessions. "In the end it made me stronger," she laughed, her made-up face known to countless Instagram fans framed by a pastel-coloured floral headscarf, sunglasses perched on top.
Next year's Tokyo Olympics and then the Paris Games in 2024 "are my great dream, my great goal," smiled the young woman.
Clothing controversy – the headscarf debate in Germany
For years now, the wearing of headscarves and veils for religious reasons has been the periodic focus of debates and conflicts in public life. We present the key phases of the headscarf debate in Germany.
1961: The Federal Republic and Turkey reach a labour recruitment agreement. Millions of Turks come to Germany as guest workers in the decades that follow – most of them remain. This also introduces Germany society to the headscarf as a feature of female Muslim attire
2002: In its Islam Charter, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany commits to the constitution while at the same time demanding a dignified life for Muslims in the Federal Republic. The Council says that this includes the wearing of the headscarf
2003: The Federal Constitutional Court upholds the ruling of the Federal Labour Court in Erfurt of 2002, which says there are insufficient grounds to dismiss someone for wearing a headscarf for religious reasons in a non-governmental place of work
2003: After years of legal wrangling, the Constitutional Court rules with five votes to three in the case of Fereshta Ludin that a female Muslim teacher cannot be prohibited from wearing a headscarf during tuition without a specific law. This puts the onus on state parliaments to legislate on the matter and in the years that follow, these enact differing regulations
2004: The European Court of Human Rights deals with the headscarf issue for the first time and upholds the ban imposed by Turkish training institutions. The judges in Strasbourg reject the complaint that the law violates the right to religious freedom and the right to freedom of expression
2011: The Federal Labour Court in Erfurt rules that the wearing of a cap in school can be regarded as a religious statement and may therefore be banned. The court goes on to say that the head covering "is evidently being worn as a substitute for an Islamic headscarf". The case is taken to Karlsruhe
2015: The Federal Constitutional Court throws out a blanket headscarf ban for female Muslim teachers in public schools. A ban is only possible, it says, if the wearing of the Muslim head covering poses a concrete risk of causing disruption in schools
2016: The Administrative Court in Augsburg rules that the eight-year headscarf ban in Bavaria for trainee lawyers is unlawful and says that it constitutes interference in religious and educational freedom with no legal basis
That dream only came within reach in February, when the International Boxing Association (AIBA) amended its rules to allow Muslim boxers to wear a hijab and fully cover their bodies in the ring.
When it comes to qualifying, "now the prerequisites are the same for all," said Nassar, who in training and in competition wears the head covering as well as a full-length top and leggings. "Only sporting performance should count. We must not be reduced to our external appearance."
Her list of achievements already includes six Berlin titles in the featherweight category and the 2018 German Championship title. In 24 official fights, Nassar, who weighs 57 kilos (125 pounds), recorded 18 victories, including one by KO, which is rare in this category.
"My boxing style is very unconventional but I'm super fast. It's my strength," she said, mimicking a few uppercuts and hooks. "For my opponents it's very unpleasant to box against me," she laughed.
But for many years, the education and sociology student could not compete in international fights because of her attire.
This year, the German Boxing Federation, which had changed its own rules in 2013, put forward Nassar for the European Under-22 Championships, which however barred her due to her outfit.
Nassar, who also speaks Arabic and regularly travels to Lebanon, her parents' country of origin, said it never occurred to her to take off her hijab for boxing. "Why should I have done that?" she said. "For me it has always been clear that I would fight with my headscarf."
In Germany, the wearing of the headscarf tends to be widely accepted on the grounds of religious freedom. The fight isn't won yet, however.
The Berliner's Olympic ambitions, like those of other sportswomen wearing the headscarf, run up against critics who brandish a rule for the Olympics prohibiting the display of any political, religious or racial symbols.
"Even if the boxing association, like most federations, has given in, the Olympic Charter has not changed," argued Annie Sugier, president of the International Women's Rights League.
Criticising the participation in the Olympics of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia whose sportswomen have to be covered "from head to toe", Sugier called hijabs in sports "sexual apartheid".
Unveiling the history of the headscarf
Uncovering head coverings: in much of the Western world today, the word headscarf is often automatically associated with those worn by women for religious reasons, especially Muslim women. Yet the idea and practice of covering one's head with cloth transcends religious, cultural and geographic categories. The show "Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf" at Vienna's Ethnological Museum (Weltmuseum) puts headscarf diversity on display
The headscarf in Christianity: in Christianity the veil is seen as a sign of virginity and modesty. On the left, a 2008 painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, shows the Virgin Mary wearing a starry blue veil. The Bible considers women's hair immoral and calls on them to cover it when praying — though some wear head coverings at all times. Right, a photograph of a Christian woman taken in Turkey in 1886
Scarves for women and men: the Ethnological Museum's exhibition includes not only artwork in which the headscarf figures, but also various headscarves themselves from around the world. And it's not just women's headscarves being shown; men's are on display, too. Left is a Tunisian bridal veil from the mid-20th century, while the headscarf on the right with a double eagle design is for male members of a religious order in Guatemala
Desert coverings for men: this photograph taken by the Viennese photographer Ludwig Gustav Alois Zohrer shows a Tuareg man wearing the traditional face coverings of the North African nomadic pastoralists. The scarf, often indigo, is believed to keep away evil spirits. It is an important rite of passage into manhood when an adolescent male begins to wear it. Women, in contrast, do not usually cover their faces
A personal undressing: the various coverings worn by some Muslim women are often debated. Nilbar Gures tackles the theme in her 6-minute-long video "Soyunma/Undressing" (2006). In it, she unwraps layers of headscarves given to her by personally significant women, whose names she calls out. It is an autobiographical act that emphasises how Muslim women, veiled or not, "foremost represent their individual selves"
Abstracted depictions: the Vienna exhibition also includes items that examine head coverings in an abstracted manner. This silver gelatine print by Austrian photographer Tina Lechner, entitled "Xiao," recalls the back of a woman's head covered by crinkly fabric that drapes down. Lechner is known for her sculptural-based photography that often examines cultural constructions of femininity in a quasi-surreal manner
Suzanne Jongmans' old-new veil. at first glance, Jongmans' photo "Mind over Matter — Julie, Portrait of a Lady" could be mistaken for von der Weyden's mid-15th century Dutch masterpiece "Portrait of a Lady." But look closely: The sitter's veil is made of packing materials, her ring is a can lid and her bodice is held closed by a single sewing pin. Jongmans' use of recycled materials reflects on how we gauge value and beauty
From conservatism to emancipation: in pre-WWII authoritarian Austria, a woman wearing a headscarf with the traditional Dirndl dress was seen as rooted, practical and patriotically conservative. By the 1950s, however, the headscarf had transformed into a luxury item. Often made of silk and featuring prints, it embodied female elegance and emancipation. Above, the 1st-prize entry for a 1964 fashion competition features a headscarf
Haute couture coverings: since 2003 Austrian designer Susanne Bisovsky has been known for her "Viennese Chic" collections: billowing lace and floral-filled creations drawing heavily on historic Austrian fashion and designed for the modern Viennese lady. Her 2018 collection (above) was designed especially for the Ethnological Museum's show and features impressive headpieces. "Veiled, Unveiled" runs until 26 February 2019
In France in April, Iranian female boxer Sadaf Khadem won her first official fight dressed in shorts and a vest.
Despite the controversy surrounding the hijab in some Western countries, sportswear giants have already begun offering less skin-revealing clothes to cash in on the "modest fashion" market, which is now worth hundreds of millions of euros.
Nassar is a brand ambassador for U.S. sportswear maker Nike, which has been marketing a sports hijab for nearly two years. The female boxer, who is very active on social media, has become a role model for young Muslim women in particular.
"If you want to get to the top, you have to fight," read a recent message by the boxer. "Nothing is simply a gift. Accepting challenges and growing beyond them. And don't forget to smile."
Before leaving the cafe, she posted a new picture of herself on Instagram, saying: "I want to show people that anything is possible if you fight for it."
Nassar's picture was also used in a poster campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of the German constitution, the Basic Law. It promoted Article 4, which states that "the undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed". (AFP)