Ruling on the headscarf ban in schools: an end to dogma

It is bizarre that Berlin still believes that teachers wearing headscarves are a threat to peace in schools. The opposite could be the case.

Turkish schoolgirl in class: More and more young women with headscarves are studying Photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa

For more than 20 years, the question of whether women wearing the Islamic headscarf should be allowed to teach in German schools has repeatedly occupied the courts and led to heated social debates. The Berlin Neutrality Law, which prohibits teachers at general schools, police officers and state employees in the judiciary from wearing religious or ideologically connoted symbols and clothing while on duty, has also been the subject of wrangling for a long time. Last week, judges at the Federal Labor Court in Erfurt declared the law unconstitutional in this general form. Only going to Karlsruhe can perhaps save it. The question is: Do we want that?

First, a confession: Like many Christian-socialized bio-Germans – bio in the sense of biography, not biology – I have long felt uneasy at the idea of my child being taught by a teacher wearing a headscarf. As an old leftist, I hold with Karl Marx and his dictum about religions. And although many see it differently, we in the "Western" democracies have agreed that religious indoctrination has no place in schools. The "confession-oriented" religious instruction shows that we do not live in secularism here, but more religion in schools is not.

In many Islamic countries, things are different. There, the containment of religion within state-defined and socially recognized boundaries has not yet succeeded. On the contrary, since the mullahs took power in Iran in 1979, conservative to reactionary interpretations of Islam have been on the rise worldwide. This is also shown by the way "the cloth" is dealt with: The legal headscarf requirement in Iran is probably the most extreme expression of religious paternalism, but in virtually all Islamic countries today there is a strong pressure on women to conform and wear the cloth. Those who rebel against it are sometimes sent to prison for years, as in Iran.

In this country, too, there are girls and women who are forced to wear the cloth. Here, too, there are radical Muslims who reject democracy and secularization. Nevertheless, the equation "headscarf equals Islamism" is not correct. Of course, the headscarf stands for a conservative image of women and gender relations. But if someone wants to wear the scarf voluntarily – be my guest. The fact that the majority society does not like this attitude is no reason to deny these people certain professions.

Incidentally, migration researchers say that the re-Islamization of many Muslim migrants and their children and grandchildren is also the result of their continued rejection by the majority society. Those who have been signaled for decades that they do not belong, that they are different, whether at school, at work, in their free time or in terms of citizenship rights, withdraw to their "own" tradition, community, religion.

Couldn’t a teacher with a headscarf have much better access to strict Islamic parents?

Despite all this, more and more migrants are making it up the social ladder – and more and more young women with headscarves are studying. But as if the majority society would prefer them to remain cleaners or housewives, many German states have installed more or less explicit "headscarf laws" since the noughties. It is true that the then "pioneer" NRW was thwarted by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2015. In the landmark ruling, the judges determined that female teachers wearing headscarves are not a blanket threat to state neutrality or "school peace." Yet "Multikulti-Berlin," of all places, stubbornly clings to its neutrality law – arguing that it would ban all religious garments, including the nun’s habit and the Jewish kippah.

On paper, that may be so. De facto, the law was made against Muslim women in 2005. This is shown by its genesis in the course of the headscarf debate at the beginning of the noughties, as well as by the argumentation of the Berlin education administration, which to this day speaks only of religious conflicts with a Muslim connection and only of female teachers with headscarves as a bad example.

But even if one takes the argument of neutrality at its word: Of course, teachers must restrain themselves from expressing personal views on religion or political preference. But whether they can do so and actually do so in everyday school life cannot be judged by their clothing.

What can be done: Make it a requirement that all teachers stand on the ground of the Basic Law – and check this on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the presumption of innocence applies to everyone, including Muslim women wearing headscarves. This is also the requirement that now applies in all federal states (except Berlin) that have regulations in this regard. Even Bavaria has declared that it will examine in each individual case whether a teacher wearing a headscarf contradicts the "basic constitutional values and educational goals of the constitution, including the Christian occidental educational and cultural values".

So why does Berlin cling to the dogma that headscarf-wearing teachers are fundamentally a danger to school peace because they fuel religious conflicts – which undoubtedly exist in some schools? Conversely, wouldn’t it be conceivable that a teacher wearing a headscarf would have much better access to strict Islamic parents who bully their daughter by forcing her to wear a headscarf or banning her from swimming, and would be more likely to convince her of the opposite than her Christian or atheist colleagues? Can a teacher with a headscarf convey much more credibly to non-Muslim children who annoy their classmates with food rules ("gummy bears are haram") that their misogyny is out of place? Soon we will know. And that’s a good thing.

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