The Headscarf and the Media

A Symbol Which Has Been Instrumentalised

The Islamic headscarf is seen by the media as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women. Sabine Schiffer argues that this perception is often linked to stereotypes, and that the media often try to read too much into the headscarf

The Islamic headscarf is seen by the media and in public debate as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women by their religion. Sabine Schiffer argues that this perception is often linked to stereotypes and prejudice, and that the media often try to read too much into the headscarf

photo: Larissa Bender
A piece of cloth overburdened with meaning - the headscarf

​​It's a paradox. We want to liberate Muslim women and they simply don't want to be liberated. One of them even goes to court to fight for the right to wear a headscarf.

Isn't the headscarf the perfect symbol of the oppression of women? Not quite, but this piece of cloth has been so overburdened with meaning that even a court of law can't deal with it in a neutral fashion.

These days, the cloth has so many meanings that, when the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe had to deal with a case in which a teacher, Fereshta Ludin, appealed against the decision of a lower court prohibiting her from wearing a headscarf in a state school, the judges were nervous about making a decision on the principle of the thing, although they'll have to make such a decision one day. But they evidently did not find it easy to make a judgement based on German legal principles.

It's much easier to look at Turkey, which is hoping to get into the European Union and where the headscarf is not allowed in any public office or even in a public building. But it's also easy to overlook that, unlike Germany, Turkey is a laicist state. That makes the comparison invalid—it only works insofar as it says it is possible to prohibit religious symbols (which is what the headscarf has been reduced to) in state institutions.

Stereotypical perception of symbols

Such a decision requires an objective discussion about all religious symbols, but that's exactly what one can't expect here in Germany. For the headscarf has a long history. Since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, the headscarf has not just been on heads—it's been on everyone's lips.

Its precise form serves as a measure of the level of freedom which those who wear it enjoy. It's a symbol for the Islamic oppression of women, and as such it's a symbol of the repression which is generally believed to be typical of Islam.

The increasing popularity of the headscarf and the beard on the one hand are confronted on the other by an increasingly stereotyped perception, which seems to have become standard since September 11th, according to which such signs are a public statement of rejection of western culture and democracy.

It's true that there are those who do indeed reject western culture and democracy, but they are not necessarily identifiable from outward signs—and anyway, in such issues it's impossible to avoid the dangers of generalisation.

From a psychological point of view, it's well known that rejection strengthens radical tendencies. And that in turn undermines the efforts of those who are trying to achieve a realistic integration of Islam into Europe.

At the same time, Muslims themselves are also guilty of the symbolic overburdening of the headscarf. Some groups use it as a measure of how far the non-Muslim majority is prepared to integrate them. And in the case of Fereshta Ludin, she emphasised the symbolic significance of her decision to wear the headscarf by linking it to her process of religious self-discovery.

But in fact it would be enough if people simply put the headscarf in the context of their cultural identity and how that affects their personal sense of modesty. If the discussion were all about modesty it would have an entirely different quality.

Instead we're having to deal with religious tolerance. And our attitude to the headscarf is a reflection of our entire view of the world, which is very culture-specific and is usually applied to other cultures quite unconsciously.

As a consequence of industrialisation and the division of life into separate areas such as work and home, the so-called West allowed the public arena to become the most important of these areas.

Functioning in this arena meant having power. That meant, for example, that the emancipation of women was linked to their conquest of the public arena.

Metaphors of emancipation and reaction

Women who were active in the public world were more visible and powerful than those who did housework or carried out less visible tasks. "Back to the hearth" was seen as metaphor for reaction. And the word "work" is almost only used to refer to work outside the home, in an occupation which, however lowly regarded, is still better than housework.

That's one reason why feminism has often used the number of women in the workforce as an indicator of the level of emancipation, without considering that this makes male values into the standard to which women have to adapt.

In the case of the headscarf, this recognition of the primacy of the public arena has simply been applied to another culture, so that a veiled woman, whom one cannot "see", who looks after a household, and is not visible in the public arena, contradicts current ideas of emancipation.

The headscarf extends the Muslim woman's "invisibility" into the public space. But it's too simple to identify freedom and emancipation simply with the freedom to wear what one likes. And it's often not the freedom to wear what one likes which is the issue when Muslim women are expected not to wear specific items. The headscarf is an easily identifiable symbol which can used economically to cover a range of issues.

When a veiled woman crosses the television screen, it immediately awakens associations which have been developed over many years. These associations are unconscious and thus they cannot easily be questioned. Assumptions, such as that the headscarf is always worn involuntarily, seem to many people to be "true."

The headscarf as a symbol of the stranger

There seems to be no way of talking about Islam any longer without reference to the headscarf, and successful women, like the Iranians Nobel peace prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, are usually shown bareheaded.

In addition, in both television news reports and newspapers, the issue of "foreigners" has for years almost always been illustrated with pictures of women wearing headscarves, so that the idea that "Islam is foreign" is reinforced. This doesn't exactly help the integration of Muslim women, who often feel misunderstood rather than "rescued."

All these assumptions about the headscarf are hovering in the background when the headscarf is presented as a threat to which we cannot allow our children to be exposed. But what risk do they run in looking at this item of clothing?

We're much less sensitive about the depiction of violence in the media and other similar issues. Aside from the questionable argument that a teacher wearing a headscarf puts over an unemancipated image of women, it might be possible instead to use the situation for the purpose of anti-racist education.

This is most successful when a child sees around it a variety of ways of living, without any special commentary, so that they seem normal. This applies to skin colour as well as other characteristics which adults may have learnt to perceive as "strange": disabilities, religious symbols, clothes, the shape of an eye or the shape of a body. The world isn't as ideal as teachers would like it to be.

To put them in context, one can use media—picture books or television programmes, for example—in which such groups of people appear. This is where the media can play a very positive role.

What's important is that these people simply appear and aren't presented as something special. Black people, Asians, people wearing various religious symbols, boys and girls in all the various situations of life and not just in stereotypical contexts.

It's even better when a child's daily life allows it to see all these different kinds of reality—and it's better still when this happens as early as possible, since that's when the differences are simply accepted as normal, and not turned into an "issue" or even seen as "odd."

So let's imagine that there are some teachers with headscarves in school. Or even better in the kindergarten. As long as it's not turned into an issue, the children will simply see it as normal and they won't make any fuss about it. That would be an ideal anti-racist education.

Just let tradition simply happen. It's enough if women wearing headscarves simply appear in the environment—without commentary and as if it were absolutely normal.

What is dangerous for our children is the polemic which surrounds this piece of cloth and those who wear it. The way such people are currently commented upon will leave children only able to perceive a woman wearing a headscarf as something requiring special attention.

Sabine Schiffer

© 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

Sabine Schiffer is a lecturer in media education and communication studies at Friedrich-Alexander University, Nürnberg/Erlangen, Germany.

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