Free choice and its discontents: Germany debates Muslim women’s attire

What is the meaning of the religious attire worn by some Muslim women? Are hijab and niqab hallmarks of the retrograde nature of Islam? Do they signal radicalisation and submission to male patriarchy – or self-determination and individual empowerment? These questions have been ceaselessly debated across Europe for years.

In Germany, a new round of legal measures, journalistic contributions, and acrimonious discussions is currently taking place, rekindling long-standing arguments and re-entrenching well-established battlefronts on the meaning and public acceptability of the hijab.

Austria takes the lead in banning the hijab

Politically, those arguing in favour of banning female head coverings have received a boost from Austria. Since the election of Sebastian Kurz as Chancellor at the head of a coalition bringing together the mainstream right ÖVP and the far-right FPÖ parties, some German conservatives have been looking to Austria: they see Kurz as a role model who has both returned to core conservative values and managed to stay ahead of the far-right in the electoral arena.

In particular, the Kurz government’s hard line on immigration and Islam has elicited applause. German politicians have eagerly picked up on legislative proposals implemented in Austria – for instance when it comes to headscarf bans in kindergartens and primary schools.

At present, Austria is not only pushing ahead with its ban on the headscarf for young girls.1 Rather, the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition is also aiming to prohibit the public display of symbols associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizbullah, as well as with a number of foreign nationalist organisations. In the future, displaying such signs will be treated more harshly than distributing National Socialist symbols – a fact all the more remarkable for the FPÖ party’s roots in National Socialism.2

Hijab ban in the judiciary in Lower Saxony

In Germany, the Austrian government’s activities have been met with praise from a number of quarters. Necla Kelek, a prominent ‘critic of Islam’ and member of the executive board of the Terre des Femmes NGO, welcomed the headscarf ban for girls.3 And Seyran Ateş, the founder of a controversial ‘liberal’ mosque who has claimed that Muslim women are paid by foreign Islamists to wear the hijab, travelled to Vienna to meet with FPÖ leaders to discuss “political Islam and its dangers to Europe”.4

While German policy-makers seem to have abandoned the plan to ban the headscarf in primary schools5, attempts to proscribe the Muslim head garment from further areas of social life proceed unabatedly. The government of the state of Lower Saxony recently announced its intention to ban state employees in the judiciary from donning religious clothing.

While the bill will be phrased in general terms of ‘religious neutrality’ and affect all faiths, its core target is Islam: the legislative initiative was propelled by Muslim law students who, during their court internships, wished to wear the headscarf. Tellingly, the state government has no intention of removing the Christian crosses prominently displayed on some courtroom walls under its jurisdiction: the proposed bill only targets personnel’s religious attire, rather such institutional expressions of religiosity.6

Hijab vs. citizen ethos

In the Geman debates surrounding such bans, two arguments intermingle freely: first, it is argued that religious symbols are expressive of a value-based commitment that cannot be admitted in the public sphere of citizenship. Secondly, it is argued that the headscarf represents a sign of female submission; that allowing it would mean caving in before ‘political Islam’ and condoning – in Necla Kelek’s words – “female apartheid”.7

Here, the first argument – about the incompatibility of the hijab with a modern citizen ethos – remains intact: for Zeynelabidin, Muslim women’s insistence on wearing the hijab is indicative of the fact that they have internalised retrograde “Oriental traditions” hostile to modernity. Once freed from the clutches of such traditionalism, Muslim women will consider the hijab a mere piece of cloth that they can put on or take off according to their individual choice. In the public sphere of citizenship, more women will abandon the hijab completely.

A privatised religiosity

This latter view – of the headscarf as a piece of clothing like any other, as a garment that can simply be removed in the public sphere – is expressive of the understanding that Islam should be marked by a fully privatised religiosity of personal choice. On this account, it is every individual believer’s private decision whether to wear the hijab or not. This decision should not impinge on the believer’s conduct in public.

Muslim theologian Dina El Omari of the University of Osnabrück endorses a somewhat similar version of this argument. Weighing in on the ongoing debates, Omari – who wears the hijab herself – asserts that Muslim women ought to be empowered to decide for themselves whether to adopt the hijab or not. Islamic feminism consists, according to Omari, in working to enable more women to make such a conscious individual choice.8

At the heart of this argument lies the image of an atomistic individual, weighing her preferences and then deciding how to act upon them. What is more, religiosity is conceived as a matter of private and cognitive belief, requiring no public and bodily expression: bodily practices – such as the wearing of the hijab – can be disconnected from one’s religious commitment that is measured only in terms of internal belief.

Individual religious ‘choice’

What remains questionable is whether this insistence on the liberal vocabulary of choice and decision actually makes sense of the significance the hijab holds for many Muslim women.

To be sure, there are undoubtedly cases where girls are forced to wear the hijab against their will, allowing us to say that they have been left with ‘no choice’. Yet in many cases, there will simply not be a pivotal moment of ‘decision’ to don the hijab or not. Instead, girls might, for instance, grow up in contexts in which the hijab is indicative of certain moral commitments; and they might subsequently see the hijab as expressive of their own moral personhood – and not as a garment that is either forced on them or freely chosen by them.

This is not to say that such contexts are always unproblematic or free from the exercise of (often patriarchal) power. Yet it is worth asking why we should demand that the hijab can only be legitimately worn if it is consciously adopted in a moment of pure individual choice. There are, after all, hardly any moral commitments that we can be said to ‘choose’ on such a tabula rasa: rather, these commitments are simply ‘with us’ in complex ways, through the diverse influences and experiences acting upon us during the processes of socialisation.

The argument in favour of banning the hijab from the judiciary suffers from a similar deficiency: in the German context, it is routinely asserted that judicial figures must not showcase their own moral convictions. Yet it remains unclear why it is the hijab (or any other religious clothing) that should be taken as a uniquely problematic emblem of such convictions. What is more, merely refraining from displaying one’s convictions will not make them go away – as recent cases of far-right sympathies in the policing and judicial apparatus amply demonstrate.

Choosing the niqab

There is a further issue with the exaltation of the moment of individual choice: its outcomes might be unpredictable. In another piece on Qantara – tellingly titled “I’ll wear a niqab if I want” – a mother describes her pain at her daughter’s religious choices.9

If anything, the daughter’s trajectory approximates the kind of individualist decisionism Zeynelabidin and El Omari desire: a young German woman from a white, non-Muslim family chooses to convert to Islam and adopt an increasingly far-reaching religious lifestyle. Against the wishes of her family, she marries a Muslim husband with contacts to particular (presumably Salafi and/or jihadi) milieus and adopts the role of a housewife.

What is more, the young woman’s decision to wear the niqab in public has also led to her social ostracism. All the issues surrounding the hijab – its religious and political significance, its impact on gender equality, etc. – resurface in aggravated form when it comes to the niqab. Whether the niqab was ‘chosen freely’ or not does not help us in answering any of these questions.

External constraints on choice

Finally, the straightforward language of ‘choice’ is also complicated by the fact that women’s Islamic attire is a symbolically charged issue: a host of exterior concerns are projected onto these garments.

For instance, Germany’s largest public broadcasters ARD and ZDF routinely choose images of hijab-wearing women to illustrate issues of xenophobia and worldwide migration. (The fact that these women are depicted from behind also means that individual facial features are not shown, further reducing them to their status as ‘hijab wearers’.)

I can picture how Tagesschau [news magazine] editors racked their
brains yesterday: “How could we illustrate xenophobia? Hm…”
And then someone has this cracking idea: “Let’s use headscarf-
wearing women from behind!”

A woman with a headscarf is depicted yet again when the focus is on
migration. And it’s not even just about Germany but about migration

Thus, the hijab emerges as completely overdetermined: while Muslim zealots may enshrine it as the hallmark of modesty, morality, and female worth, the German public sees it as emblematic of migration and foreignness (as well as a whole gamut of associated dangers: crime, terrorism, Islamisation). The language of ‘individual choice’ hardly captures the forces acting upon Muslim women in these contexts.

Looking beyond choice

What the hijab inevitably does – for whatever reason it is worn (or not) – is to elicit attention. Thus, it is only fitting that Germany’s General Association of Advertising Agencies (GWA) recently awarded a prize for one the most effective publicity campaigns of 2018 to sweets manufacturer Katjes: to promote a new line of fully vegetarian products, Katjes had – among others – employed hijab-wearing model Vividca Petrovic.10

Somewhat ironically, Petrovic donned the hijab out of choice in the advert campaign: she is not Muslim and merely wore it for the purposes of the sweets commercial. Yet the fact that the hijab was ‘freely chosen’ in this way only further enhanced the ire the far right and some feminists directed at the campaign: Katjes was accused of contributing to the normalisation of female oppression and to the Islamisation of German society.

This episode once more reveals the speciousness of the language of ‘choice’ when it comes to the hijab: what is ultimately at issue in public debates is not whether women wear the headscarf of their own volition. Rather, the problem is that they wear it at all.

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    Those who wish to avoid the shrill tone of the second line of argument often assert that banning the Muslim headscarf will not solve the issue and will not help Muslim women become more emancipated. Writing for the online magazine Qantara, activist Emel Zeynelabidin stresses that only educational measures will enhance Muslim women’s enlightenment. Through such measures, these women can catch up with the rights gains obtained by European feminists.((