On Headscarves and Lawcourts

The so-called "Headscarf Dispute" continues to excite considerable interest in Germany. A recent discussion at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin attracted so many people that there was barely standing-room left in the auditorium.

Fereshta Ludin at court; photo: AP

​​The schoolteacher Fereshta Ludin has been insisting on her right to practise her religion as she sees fit and to be allowed access to public office. (In Germany, teachers are civil servants.) According to the school authorities, however, the wearing of the headscarf comes into conflict with the state’s obligation to maintain the neutrality of schools in matters of politics and religion. The Federal Constitutional Court now has to find a solution to this legal row – and the judges' task is no easy one. During hearings at the beginning of July, they had already made it clear that this dispute is about more than a few square centimetres of fabric. Fundamentally, it is about how people of various religions and cultures live together in Germany.

Religion as a personal matter

Originally from Afghanistan, Fereshta Ludin is a Muslim teacher of German and English who has held German citizenship since 1995. She regards her religion as a part of her personality, and sees no discrepancy between her Islamic faith and her adherence to the values of freedom and democracy. Up to now, Fereshta Ludin has failed in her appeals at all levels of the administrative court system. She asks whether any woman who wears such a headscarf for religious reasons can automatically be said to be pursuing political objectives: "Why should such a decision – a very personal decision – be taken by politicians or state institutions? Where is my right to decide my own fate as a woman? Where does this leave my chances of emancipation in this society?"

The Green Member of Parliament Marieluise Beck is the German Federal Government’s Commissioner on Integration. She regrets the fact that the "Headscarf Dispute" has landed in the hands of the lawyers; it's not good, she says, that the decision has been so quickly delegated to the courts of law. Marieluise Beck feels that this conflict has to do with a socio-political process, and that it should not be settled by the decision of a judge. At the same time, she also spoke in favour of a "thoroughgoing religious neutrality" in Germany’s schools. In this context, Beck also pointed out that in Berlin, for example, the mainly Turkish immigrant community had protested against the wearing of the headscarf; for in Turkey, it is forbidden.

A Complicated Legal History

The courts have already pronounced a wide array of judgments on the Muslim headscarf. Thus, the Federal Labour Court held that a Muslim shop worker must be allowed to wear her headscarf at work. The Labour Court in Dortmund also decided that it was permissible to wear the headscarf at one"s workplace, thereby overturning a woman"s dismissal from employment by the town of Bergkamen; the judges reached their decision on the grounds that religious freedom must have priority. A further case concerns the suspension of a Muslim kindergarten teacher; while the courts have yet to reach a decision on this matter, local authorities all over Germany are following the case with interest. But in public institutions such as schools, says Marieluise Beck, there is less clarity. As the Commissioner on Integration puts it: "Right now, we are faced with the difficult task of weighing up the merits of two distinct legal interests. On the one hand, we have the individual religious freedom of every woman in this society, be she a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Christian; and on the other hand, we have the schools as an impartial institution. Parents, who submit their children to the care of the state, do have the right to expect that a certain neutrality will prevail in schools, and that this neutrality will also be guaranteed by the state."

Religion as a political issue?

Sanem Kleff works for the Educational and Scientific Workers Union in Berlin, and she is also Chair of the Federal Commission on Multicultural Affairs. She points out that the headscarf can indeed stand for a political ideology in many parts of the world; as, for example, in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Kleff has demanded more honesty and openness from Ludin, and recalls the accusations made by Alice Schwarzer, the editor of the well-known German women’s magazine, "Emma".

Schwarzer had described Ludin’s alleged links to the Islamic group, "Milli Görus", a Turkish organisation that is currently under observation by Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Verfassungsschutz. Fereshta Ludin works at an Islamic primary school in Berlin – and the registered association responsible for running the school is said to belong to Milli Görus. Ludin fends off Schwarzer’s allegations that she requested financial aid from Germany’s Muslim Central Council in order to fight her case. Meanwhile, Commissioner on Integration Marieluise Beck insists that the following question has to be faced: what should be allowed – and what shouldn’t – within our basic democratic and pluralistic consensus? And this question, she says, is also directed at immigrants from other cultural and religious spheres. Ultimately, says Beck, the task is to "naturalise" Islam, for it is already part of everyday life in Germany. And, she went on, Islam itself would also change its character under the conditions of life prevailing in a pluralistic German society.

Sabine Ripperger, © 2003 Deutsche Welle

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