Headscarves: the wrong battle

Throughout Europe, over the past decade, there has been a loud – and at times openly xenophobic – debate about whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear a headscarf while on duty in a government job. Various types of bans have been enacted in several countries, including France, Germany, and Turkey.

Some feminists seek these bans in the name of helping Muslim women, whom they often see as uniformly oppressed. Anti-immigration politicians seek these policies because they see people who refuse to “fit in” as a threat to western society. But these arguments are detrimental both to women’s rights and to peaceful integration, and the women most likely to be affected are rarely consulted.

“I suddenly felt like a stranger in Germany,” one elementary school teacher said, describing her reaction to a ban in her state. “I will never forget that.”

She was one of many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Germany, where 8 of 16 federal states have these bans for teachers (in two states the ban also covers other civil servants). Some of these laws are openly discriminatory, banning religious symbols, but excluding symbols of “Christian heritage.” Other German bans appear to be neutral, but almost exclusively affect Muslim women.

Gauri van Gulik at Comment is Free, 14 March 2009