A young woman in pink nibbles gum while smiling down from a billboard. Pretty normal, right? Apparently not, seeing as the young woman is Muslim and the vegan gum she’s chewing is free from pork gelatin (and therefore considered halal). That’s been enough to ignite a storm of indignation in Germany recently.
How did wearing a headscarf get to be such a big deal? The fact that the confectionery company Katjes dared to try and market a product to the roughly four million Muslim consumers in Germany is apparently being held up as proof of the “Islamisation” of the country. First halal chewing gum, then Sharia law? Not forgetting, of course, that there are other groups who might be interested in vegan chewing gum (vegans, for example).
Some women’s rights activists see in the headscarf a symbol of female oppression. That’s certainly a valid criticism in countries where women are legally obliged to wear a headscarf, such as in Iran, but what about in Germany? Many empowered Muslim women in Germany opt to wear the headscarf voluntarily.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Monika, who says she is scared of “creeping Islamisation”. Headscarves, in her opinion, represent a “contempt for equality and are a means of rising above unbelievers.” To get a response, we put Monika’s comment to Sabine Berghahn, a German lawyer, journalist, and political scientist who has written extensively on the headscarf and gender issues. How would she respond?
It is often said that the headscarf is a symbol of Islamisation and is against gender equality. I think that’s a misperception, because Muslim women all have different individual motives for wearing headscarves, which means it’s hard to make blanket statements. It is simply not true that everybody who wears a headscarf rejects gender equality. The motives of the women who wear headscarves have been researched academically and it was found that particularly highly-educated headscarf wearers even actively advocate for equal rights. The headscarf may even be a symbol of self-assertion. Of course, there are other reasons, but it always depends on the individual. It is best to ask instead of reading too much into a garment of clothing.
We also had a comment from Catherine who supports a ban on the wearing of burqas and headscarves in schools because she believes it implies women are of a “lower caste” than men. To get a reaction, we put her comment to the German journalist Birgit Kelle, who advocates in her articles and books in favour of more positive images of traditional gender roles. What would she say?
I think that in the Muslim headscarf we are dealing not just with a purely religious piece of clothing, but with a political symbol. We are now seeing it in countries like Iran, where women have to fight for the freedom to remove it and even get arrested when they take off their headscarves. I think it would be a good idea, in our free Western democracies, to make sure that we ban such symbols in state-run public spaces such as in schools and universities, as well as for public employees. A teacher should set an example. If she wears a headscarf then it might signal to her students that they should also wear a headscarf to get good grades.
However, I think that a general ban on wearing the headscarf would be wrong. If I wear a headscarf as a private citizen, the state should not be able to regulate it. There is not only the Muslim headscarf, but also the religious head coverings for Christian nuns, priests and Jewish rabbis. With some religious clothing there is controversy and not with others. However, for public employees of state-run institutions, neutrality must be maintained, and this is where we need a headscarf ban.
What would Sabine Berghahn say to the suggestion of banning the headscarf in state schools?
The law is different in the different countries of Europe. For example, there is alreaady a headscarf ban in French schools, but not in Germany because here the right of the parents is more important. Parents may decide on the religious education of children until they are 14 years old. Until then, schools can do little about the wearing of headscarves. But even here a ban would not achieve what you see in France. Muslim girls would then go to Islamic schools and that would probably isolate them even more.
Also, speaking of ‘burqas’ and ‘headscarves’ in the same breath is a problem. Faces should not be obscured in a classroom context. Teachers are instructed to communicate face-to-face with their students, and the veiling of the face actually prohibits that. The school then has to dissuade the parents and the girls from doing so. But if a ban is enforced rigidly, it also provokes defiance and that does not help.
How did the headscarf become so controversial? Is it a symbol of female oppression? Or a positive sign of Muslim identity? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!