Muslim Headscarves Test the Limits of German Tolerance

June 20, 2008

Author: Thomas Darnstädt

Source: Spiegel Online,1518,560812,00.html

For years, Germany's legal experts have been arguing about whether Muslim public officials have the right to wear headscarves. The issue raises difficult questions about religious tolerance and constitutional rights in Germany.

"When you do something," Brigitte Weiss says, "you need to do it right."

It's a motto she knows from home. She remembers people saying it where she comes from, a coal-mining area in Germany's western Ruhr region. Later, as a grade school teacher in Mettmann, a small town near Düsseldorf, she tried to pass the homespun wisdom on to her students. Whether it was their homework in German, geography, home economics, or whatever else they were doing -- the main thing was to do it right.

"All of my students," Weiss says, "were happy to have me as their teacher."

Now this is no longer entirely the case. The reason is Brigitte Weiss's conversion to Islam. Now she has a new name, Maryam, and she dresses differently: She wears a headscarf.

The problem is that for nearly two years it has been against the rules for teachers in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to wear headscarves in public schools. So Weiss has received a letter from the schools administration asking to know why she wore hers.

Yes, why? "Because I'm a Muslim," she says.

But what does wearing the headscarf mean? Is it obedience to religion? Or submission to a man? Or is it a rebellion against the society shaped by Germany's post-war constitution?

Nonsense, says Maryam Brigitte Weiss. For her, wearing a headscarf is something "typically German, 100 percent German" -- just like herself. At home, at school, or as a Muslim, she applies the same rule -- no half measures. "Whenever I do something, I do it right, dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's."

The question of what the scarf on Maryam Brigitte's head signifies is now being examined by the courts. She lost her case before the administrative court in Düsseldorf, but the judges allowed an appeal because of the case's "fundamental importance." It's precisely because of this fundamental importance that Weiss, who is also women's affairs representative for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, has no intention to back down. She plans to fight this all the way to the nation's highest court.

Question of the Day

She's not the first Muslim woman to have this matter addressed in a court of law. Across Germany, judges in administrative courts and labor courts as well as constitutional experts are all struggling with the same question, one which would have been simple for the mothers and grandmothers of these legal experts to answer back in the 1960s: What is a headscarf?