Gender, Religion, and Secularism Meet in Germany's Headscarf Battle
By Veysel Oezcan
Humboldt University Berlin
March 1, 2003
In the latest in a string of courtroom duels over the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves in the workplace, a German court has ruled that a nursery school teacher dismissed from her post for wearing the symbol of her faith could return to work.
In its January 17 decision, a labor court overruled the layoff of the teacher, who worked in the city of Bergkamen, for wearing the headscarf while on the job. The judges dismissed her employers' view that wearing the headscarf, which is widely required of Muslim women, violated the duty of civil servants to appear "neutral" in the workplace. The judges maintained that the teacher is protected by her constitutional freedom of religion. Furthermore, according to the judges, it is doubtful that the "neutrality" requirement applies to nursery school teachers, who are not civil servants in the strictest sense of the word.
The conflict over the headscarf is a frequent flashpoint at the intersection of religious freedom and secularism in Germany, and in this case, women are the most affected. As Islam is popularly practiced, women alone are responsible for covering their heads in public as sign of modesty. The increasing number of immigrants to Germany, and the rise in the number of Muslims, has set up the clash between devout Muslim women and their supporters on the one hand, and determinedly secular German authorities on the other.
The struggle takes place against a backdrop of rising Muslim immigration to Germany, whose population is overwhelmingly Christian. Immigration to Germany in past decades has seen the arrival of more foreign citizens and more religious communities. At the end of 2001, there were 7.3 million foreigners living in Germany, which meant a share of eight percent of the total population. The largest religious minority in the country is now made up of Muslims. According to Ministry of Interior estimates, about 3.2 million Muslims were living in Germany by the end of 2000, some 450,000 of them with German citizenship.
(see previous articles on German immigration)
Most analysts believe that one important measure of the degree of immigrants' social integration is the extent to which they are able to practice their religious beliefs in the public sphere, and the extent to which they succeed in anchoring their religious community in institutions. In Germany, Muslim immigrants' struggle to introduce Islamic religious education in public schools has been part of this process of institutionalization
(see previous article on Islamic education), and the headscarf issue has grabbed public attention in this arena.
The key case in the so-called "headscarf dispute" first made headlines in 1998, when Fereshta Ludin, an Afghan-born German who became a citizen in 1995, filed a lawsuit after being barred from teaching in a headscarf. The state called her attire a violation of the requirement that teachers be neutral in appearance. Ludin's lawsuit failed in several appeals, with the last ruling delivered by a federal court in July 2002.
In that ruling, the court acknowledged that Ludin's religious practices were protected by the German Constitution. However, the judges also maintained that civil servants had to appear neutral in matters of religion, and that pupils enjoyed the right to freedom of religion, as well. Therefore, according to the court, Ludin's public schoolchildren could demand "not to be exposed to the influence of a foreign religion by the state, including in the form of a symbol, without being able to escape this influence." When the headscarf is worn for religious reasons, the judges explained, it represents a clear visible symbol of Islamic religion, incompatible with the neutrality requirement. Ludin's lawyer has called the "headscarf ban" a de facto bar from the teaching profession for Muslim women. Ludin has appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court, which will hand down a ruling in 2003. In the meantime, the battle over Muslim women and their headscarves looks likely to continue in Germany.
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