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From the December 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 12)

Europe

Germany: Unveiling Prejudices

Tekla Szymanski, World Press Review associate editor

How much foreign culture are Germans willing to absorb without losing their identity? After a five-year legal battle fought by a Muslim teacher over her right to wear her headscarf (hijab) in class, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled on Sept. 24 in her favor. But the ruling, “one of the greatest challenges for the German jurisdiction” (Der Spiegel, Sept. 29), left it to Germany’s 16 states to decide if, and how, to enforce the law.

Martin Klingst, writing in Die Zeit (Sept. 25) under the headline “Cowardly Judges,” lamented that the ruling hadn’t gone further and called it a “timid, narrow-minded, and outdated decree [that] denies Muslim women legal protection of their rights.”

Several European countries have already struggled with similar dilemmas. Judging from the media’s reactions in Germany, however, the fiercely debated “patchwork of headscarf rulings,” as it is referred to, has a far greater significance and historic meaning in a country hardly known for its racial and cultural diversity. At press time, seven states had already declared that they would not allow the hijab in schools.

Commentators were deeply divided among those who consider the hijab a symbol of gender oppression that has no place in German schools, those who want to maintain the separation between church and state, and those who accept religious symbols as an integral part of a multicultural, open society. Namo Aziz, a Muslim commentator writing in Die Zeit (Oct. 2), vehemently rejected the last position. “I wouldn’t let my child be educated by a woman wearing the hijab, and I believe that mosques belong only in Arab countries. The ruling has shown an indifference to gender oppression in Islamic societies. Those who allow the hijab in German schools should also permit punishments according to the Shariah....And perhaps we should allow Hindus to scatter the ashes of their dead in the Rhine?” Der Spiegel, in its 14-page cover story (Sept. 29), remarked bluntly: “The Muslim teacher asked for tolerance in the name of intolerance....To tolerate the hijab would mean to underestimate the aggressive craving for legitimacy of fundamentalism....The oppression of girls is now manifested by law.”

“We’re talking about a headscarf, not a veil,” argued Heribert Prantl in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Sept. 25). “The court’s ruling marks the beginning of a legitimate public discourse and is not a ‘headscarf-über-alles-debate.’ ” Armin Adam, writing in the same paper (Sept. 29), added: “A ruling against the hijab today could mean a ruling against a kippah [Jewish skullcap] or a cross tomorrow.”

Many commentators debated whether the hijab would encourage fundamentalism, a view that Navid Kermani, a Muslim, angrily repudiated in Die Tageszeitung (Oct. 9). “To imply that wearing a hijab proves fundamentalist tendencies and a willingness to be oppressed is defamation. You promote a climate where women wearing a hijab will be spat at and ordered to return to the mullahs.”

But the hijab wasn’t really the issue, claimed Martin Klingst in Die Zeit (Sept. 25). “What matters is who chooses to wear it.…Banning religious symbols from the classrooms won’t promote neutrality—but a sterile environment.”

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