The Head Scarf Controversy

The controversy about the head scarf in some European countries has become a point of discussion in the Middle East. As a German Muslim wearing the head scarf I have to consider both sides.

When I converted to Islam almost 18 years ago in London, where I had started to study Arabic and Politics, I also decided to wear the head scarf in public. It was my free decision and I had my own personal reasons. For me it was a natural decision although I was well aware of the consequences and possible reactions of my non-Muslim friends and family. As I had expected they were quite surprised and some thought I had gone totally mad.

Only two years earlier I myself commented the answer of the first male Muslim I had personally met to his country of origin with the remark that he came from a region where women were suppressed. Right away he invited me to his home country in order to prove to me the opposite. Today I live in Arabia and know that reality in the Middle East is often very different to the prejudices we have in the West about these countries, their people and lives. Before I had ever met any people of the Middle East I thought I knew better. I had forgotten my first conscious encounter with Turkish Muslims when I was still a child. During a picnic with my elder sister on a very hot summer’s day we saw a group of busily chatting female Muslim Turks wearing head scarves. I remarked that they must be dying of heat, but my sister replied differently than I had expected. To my surprise she said that according to an old saying everything that is good against the cold is also good against the heat. If there is any truth to that or not was not the point at the time, but I think my sister (intentionally or unintentionally) wanted to convey a message to me. I remember that I evaluated my quick comment and thought I should be more tolerant with others and not to be judgmental before I ever got to know these people.

Many years later during my studies in London I had close contact to Arabic and Persian Muslims who lived there, many of them were wearing the head scarf, but they were so different from the Turkish Muslims I had seen at home. As a world metropolis London offers total freedom of religion to people of all faiths and the head scarf was never a subject of controversy as long as I lived there. That was not a surprise as Hindu policemen may replace the traditional „bobby“ helmet of the royal police force with a turban of the same color. I do not think this would be possible in Germany, where I come from!

Yet, I also experienced how difficult it could be for young Muslim girls to go to school with a head scarf, especially if they were the only one. One close Muslim friend whose daughter was the only girl wearing a head scarf at the time in her school asked for my advice, what she could do if her daughter came home crying after she had been teased by the other children because of her head scarf. This problem was to be expected, because children do not like to stand out of the crowd but they wish to blend in with their peers. The only advice I could give her at the time, as I knew that her religious convictions would not allow her daughter to go to school without the head scarf, that she should talk to her daughter and allow her to speak about her painful experience at school and her frustrations without the fear to be criticized from her strict parents or worse to doubt their love. The parents had to show compassion for their daughter’s situation. I didn’t have a better advice then, but my experience made me confront this subject already before I had a daughter on my own one day.

Many years later one event reminded me of this subject, but this time from a different angle. I was working as English teacher in a private school in the Middle East when a girl came into the teachers‘ room crying because she had forgotten her head scarf at home, which she only had started wearing recently. This time she was teased by the other children for not wearing a head scarf – opposite worlds but with a similar problem and similar insensitive reactions. My Danish Christian colleague of all teachers would help this poor girl without hesitation by taking off her neck scarf with the remark that the girl did not have to worry at all nor cry because something like that could happen to anyone and this didn’t make her a bad person. She did not try to convince this girl of her own personal opinion that the head scarf was unnecessary, which would not have helped to console the girl at that moment anyway, but rather would have made matters worse. I was surprised about the understanding and empathy with which the teacher was able to help this girl, whose relieved smile I cannot forget. Especially children and young people should not be teased or discriminated against because of their appearance. They cannot and most of all are not yet allowed to decide for themselves and therefore become easily victimized. I wanted to avoid that for my own children. As German mother of (by now) two daughters I knew very well that I could never force my own girls to wear a head scarf and had never wanted to. This is why I had to grapple myself with this subject critically and find an acceptable solution for everyone involved.

Children need an environment in which they are able to practice their religion freely if it is practiced by their families intensively. They have to understand their religion and should be able to adopt it with their hearts and reason, if they wish to do so, without compulsion. Because sooner or later compulsion causes problems and we will achieve the opposite of what we originally wanted to accomplish. Scared off by compulsion many people neglect or even hate their religion even though they don’t really know it that well. As for me, being a German Muslim woman and based on my own circumstances, it is a must that I may voluntarily follow the rules and rituals of a religion. However, for children who are born into a religion, unfortunately, this is mostly not possible. As one of my university colleagues remarked once, too many Muslims reduce religion to a set of dos and don’ts with which they often threaten to suffocate their own children instead of helping them to spiritually and mentally grow and develop through their religion. Sadly, many don’t allow this interpretation of Islam in daily life for themselves.

Muslim parents who live in Europe must begin to understand what they might do to their children if they raise them in a foreign culture while rejecting that they identify themselves with the same culture they live in, in other words with what they see in their environment every single day at school, with their non-Muslim friends, on TV, or during festive seasons. For me personally there was no other alternative but to raise my daughters in an Islamic country, to send them to gender segregated government schools where they wouldn’t be picked at because of their head scarves so that they could enjoy their childhood feeling normal without having to suffer the consequences of a culture or religion clash.

Children deserve to be loved and parents love their children because they think that their children resemble them and they recognize themselves in their children. Small children identify themselves with their parents and do everything in order to avoid disappointing their parents. Muslim girls that go to school in Germany or France, for example, are constantly given the feeling that they are wrong not only through the public fuzzy discussion about the head scarf but (what is worse) through a lot of inconsiderate behaviour and rejecting reactions by their fellow non-Muslim residents even through a quick disapproving look. At home, on the one hand, they are made to understand that they are wrong if they copy local behaviour patterns or likings that, on the other hand, the culture they live in would like them to accept. These children will not be able, despite all their efforts in their already strained situation between two cultures and religions, to satisfy the impossible expectations of being correct and respected from everyone.

I don’t think the ideal solution is to segregate government schools according to religion or gender. However, we must admit that as long as the head scarf issue is met with such prejudice, and as long as the mistrust between the cultures involved grows, and as long as possible changes of society frighten so many people on both sides, and as long as children cannot be accepted as they look (which I admit is not always their choice), so long will these girls suffer and so long will we burden them with our immaturity. The children most likely cannot understand the connection between their traditions and religion; leave alone the political background of the flurry in Germany or France, two societies that are based on secularism in which equality and freedom for all should be guaranteed, for both the one who wants and the one who does not want to practice religion.

I have always discussed the head scarf issue with my daughters and the problems they might get when wearing it during our trips to Europe. But despite their given choice they never wanted to take it off because it is part of their identity and the society they live in. This is important because the head scarf is not automatically part of the identity of Muslim girls that live or were born in Western countries. In addition people often lack religious tolerance in secular states, because of the right of choice is considered fundamental. One solution might be better integration policies but they cannot be implemented from one side only. Muslims who live in Western countries need to inform others about their religion and accept to reflect about possible drawbacks in their behaviour patterns instead of wishing the „unbelievers“ always to hell. One has to admit that the lack of sensitivity from the population of the immigration country, on the one hand, and the sensitivity of the Muslims with regard to their religion, on the other hand, do not make this task any easier. Naturally, Muslims do not want non-Muslims to interfere in their religion and vice versa Europeans do not want Islam to influence their secular state and laws. Who would not understand this? Nevertheless, if we want to improve the situation, both sides need to get to know each other better and stop feeling to be superior to the other. The head scarf has a long history and belongs also to Judaism and early Christianity. If Jewish girls/teachers or catholic nuns were wearing the head scarf in German or French schools, would they be equally discriminated against? I hope not.

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