Headscarf debate: How Islamophobic is feminism?

Feminists who want to ban headscarves for girls are betraying the cause – and playing into the hands of the right-wing populists. An essay by Meredith Haaf

A gut instinct is not always the worst argument in decisional conflicts, but politically it is totally useless. In any case at the very latest if one's own gut instincts contradict the practice, needs and instincts of a great many other people. This has also been the Chancellor's experience in recent weeks.

Just as on the issue of marriage for all: within the context of questions of gender hierarchy, the domination of gut instincts remains relatively stable. The Muslim headscarf is currently back at the top of the list of sensitive issues, one that includes gender theory and prostitution and which regularly triggers stomach ulcer-like reactions.

With outcomes that are often hard on those affected: In a decision clearly driven by straightforward gut instinct, the Federal Constitutional Court recently rejected a last-minute appeal by a female Muslim lawyer who wanted to wear her headscarf while absolving her internship.

So here we have a woman being legally prevented from realising her life opportunities in the attire of her choice – in particular a woman whose background and religious conviction evidently make her the target of discrimination in pretty much any professional sector in this country. Nevertheless, this decision will be welcomed by many German feminists, just as the women's rights organisation Terre des Femmes did on Twitter.

Women in burkini and bikini demonstrate together in Antwerp against France′s burka ban (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Sadones)
Topping the controversial league table: ahead of modern gender theories and prostitution, the Muslim headscarf has once again made it to number one as the issue most likely provoke an extreme reaction. Meanwhile, women in Antwerp can be seen here protesting together in burkini and bikini for the right to wear what they want without the state getting involved

This initially appears astonishing. But in the current setting of issues and priorities by groups such as Terre des Femmes or the magazine Emma, it is clear that the view of Islam as the motor of societal ills is not only to be found in right wing conservative circles, asserters of a national identity or the AfD.

In influential feminist circles, a perspective is prevailing from which Islam is being interpreted as the alleged all-powerful main pillar of patriarchal circumstances in this nation. The corresponding argumentation is in the best case anti-liberal and in some ways close to right wing populism. It forces the question of how close the links between feminism and progressive politics are (still) at all.

Laws against headscarves for girls? And what about bikinis for eight-year-olds?

Just take a look at Emma's Internet portal. The magazine is less influential these days, but it is still seen as a compass for many when it comes to women's rights issues. Emma still covers a wide range of subjects, but the focus has narrowed: five articles in one issue on the repression of women in Islam, three articles on forced prostitution and their supposed willing helpers, the sex workers' lobby.

According to this portrayal, the biggest obstacles to a just society are the headscarf-wearing minority within the Muslim minority as well as heartless whores who only insist on their own rights instead of being happy about advisory services and the legal obligation to use condoms.

The only acceptable Muslim in this county is the psychologist and writer Ahmad Mansour, a man who is critical of Islam. Emma's take on reality does not differ dramatically from that of the right wing political magazine Tichy's Einblick, founded by the former editor-in-chief of the magazine Wirtschaftswoche, Roland Tichy.

The organisation Terre des Femmes cannot really be accused of populism. Which makes the decision taken at the association's latest general meeting all the more astonishing: a call for a future ban on headscarves for girls.

If one considers that the association receives a high volume of donations and subsidies and is active worldwide, this is more than just a side note in the feminism debate. In public spaces, in schools, town halls, but also on the street, girls should be banned from wearing the hijab. Terre des Femmes justifies its demand by citing the practice of some Muslim women who send their daughters to primary school in headscarves.

According to Emma magazine, the headscarf-wearing minority of Muslim women in Germany is the principal obstacle to social equality. Emma's take on reality does not differ dramatically from that of the right wing political magazine Tichy's Einblick, founded by the former editor-in-chief of the magazine Wirtschaftswoche, Roland Tichy
According to Emma magazine, the headscarf-wearing minority of Muslim women in Germany is the principal obstacle to social equality. Emma's take on reality does not differ dramatically from that of the right wing political magazine Tichy's Einblick, founded by the former editor-in-chief of the magazine Wirtschaftswoche, Roland Tichy

This "marks out the girls as seducers and sexual beings" and degrades them on the basis of their gender. The statement goes on to say that the "child's headscarf" also exerts a damaging influence on the development of Muslim girls, as these become so accustomed to the attire at such an early age as to render them psychologically unable to decide not to wear the headscarf when they reach adulthood.

It is the duty of the state to ensure that all girls in this country can grow up in the same circumstances, says Terre des Femmes. One does not have to view the Muslim headscarf as especially worthy of protection, or find the child's headscarf acceptable, to see a logical problem here: After all, is it not the case that many western parents dress their eight-year-old daughters in T-shirts emblazoned with the word "girlie", or bikini tops to cover their chests?

One could also brand such a practice as discrimination in early childhood, but strangely Terre des Femmes is not appealing to lawmakers to ban such clothing at H&M and Kik.

Is western "sexualisation" less formative than eastern?

Many children in Germany – both male and female – are growing up on the poverty line, so with dramatically fewer opportunities than other children. Surely it is a much more pressing concern for the state to address this situation? Participants at the general meeting report that the Terre des Femmes executive is fearful of Islamisation and that this process should be forestalled.

Members of the executive such as Inge Bell and Hania Luczak emphasise their awareness that the demand will be difficult to implement and say it is not a legislative proposal, but a "social line of approach that we want".

But this line of approach amounts to the discursive stoking of discrimination against a section of the population.

Should nine-year-old girls have their headscarves removed by the police? Should 16-year-old girls wearing headscarves expect to have to show their ID or pay a fine at any time?

The impact of such social improvement measures could be observed last year in France, when law enforcers made female beachgoers remove their burkinis. Should western secularism in all its faded glory as the guiding ideal really be exercised on the weakest members of society – children?

Feminists who in the name of gender equality set the state on families with particular backgrounds want nothing else. Here, we generally call laws tailored to certain population groups discriminatory.

The motivation behind it is even somehow understandable: the paths of the patriarchy were never so difficult to penetrate as they are today. Of course it would be nice to think we might be able to at least switch off a clearly definable factor in society, to remove a symbol of difference. But: if the burden of such legislation is to be placed exclusively on women – or in this case even school-age girls – this neither helps women generally nor specifically.

The feminists' call for state repression is misanthropic

Laws aimed at protecting women from their own practices are not only to some extent absurd as feminist demands, in particular if one is not concerned with the human consequences of such laws. The approach also reveals a startlingly uncritical stance towards the state as the historic main pillar of patriarchal order, a stance that doesn't suit feminists.

And what is more: the readiness to brand individual ethnic or religiously defined groups with their symbols is playing into the hands of all those who for quite different reasons maintain and call for aggressive, discriminatory dealings with Muslims.

The AfD is currently the only national party campaigning for a headscarf ban in schools. This is incidentally the same party whose agenda includes sanctions against single mothers and tighter controls on the information service provided to women seeking an abortion.

If women become the target of legal regulations – whether they are women who wear headscarves, or women who are sex workers – then it can never be called progress, it is at most a cheap cosmetic measure.

Those who otherwise always campaign against the discrimination of their fellow women should know this better than anyone. And those who support a different approach put themselves on a level with a policy that is not just misogynist. But profoundly misanthropic.

Meredith Haaf

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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