(File pix) A woman selects a hijab at an outdoor market. Why does this piece of cloth anger people so much? Reuters Photo

ON May 9, a Berlin court upheld a government decision to stop a Muslim woman wearing a hijab from teaching primary school students. A court spokesman explained that the ruling was because “primary school children should be free of the influence that can be exerted by religious symbols”.

The oxymoronic nature of the logic apparently escaped the court. If the idea is to prevent children from being indoctrinated, one would think that exposing them to different ideas is better than confining them to just symbols experienced in their homes.

The bankruptcy of the state’s argument is also evident when viewed against other German attempts targeting the headscarf and promoting Christian religious symbols. For instance, the state of Bavaria issued a decree on April 24 requiring all government buildings to display crosses at their entrance. The government’s justification: the display is “a visible commitment to the basic values of the legal and social order in Bavaria and Germany”, and its “cultural identity and Christian-western influence”. So much for freedom from religious symbols.

Last month, an Algerian woman was denied French citizenship because she declined to shake hands with male public servants, citing religious beliefs. The naturalisation ceremony was held in Isère, France in 2016, and the woman “expressly refused to shake hands with the secretary-general of the prefecture and another local official”. The officials declined to grant her citizenship and she sued. According to the French Civil Code’s article 21-4 the government may “on grounds of indignity or lack of assimilation other than linguistic, oppose the acquisition of the French nationality by the foreign spouse within a period of two years”. The court supported the government’s decision and said her refusal to shake hands “in a place and at a moment that are symbolic, reveals a lack of assimilation”.

These instances illustrate how far some European countries are from inclusive societies such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and even India. For all their protestations about human rights deficits in other parts of the world, the reality is that there is systemic prejudice against ethnic minorities on the Continent. This is revealed by the hollowness of the justifications for intruding on liberty in the headscarf and citizenship cases. There was no overwhelming need to deny these women autonomy: a teacher wearing a headscarf can perform her functions just as effectively; and a handshake is not essential to citizenship.

To be sure, religious expression has to yield when there is a compelling state interest that warrants it. For example, bans on veils in airports, courtrooms, public offices, whilst driving, etc are perfectly justifiable. Such bans serve important public interests in safety, administration of justice, customer service, and efficiency. Equally, religious beliefs that are contrary to a country’s core constitutional values can be struck down — polygamy, honour killings, forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, are all proper subjects for bans. Similarly, paternalistic legislation to advance gender equality in community groups where inequality is ingrained due to cultural or religious practices cannot be stopped in the name of religious freedom.

French and German claims about assimilation are contradicted by strong evidence. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent conducted a visit to Germany from February last year and found that “racial profiling by police officials is endemic — stops, identification checks, searches and other controls by police are usually targeted at minority groups”. Notably, the report found a striking “lack of representation of people of African descent in law enforcement”, exemplified by the Cologne Police which had “only one person of African descent in its police force of 4,800”.

Those of African descent experienced poverty at “three times the national mean of 15.7 per cent”. The UN group found that “Muslim students — describe their experiences in school as traumatic, as they experience not only racism — but also, anti-Muslim racism”.

A 2009 study by the EU’s agency for Fundamental Rights documented that 55 percent of ethnic minorities felt bias was widespread, including the 50 per cent of Turkish people who reported the same in Germany. None of this is surprising: academic research has shown discrimination in housing and employment against Muslim immigrants and there is very low representation of Muslims in upper echelons of both public and private institutions.

Prohibiting teachers from wearing headscarves only exacerbates these problems. It is likely to push Muslim women out of vocations they are most likely to pursue. A woman who has to choose between going to work or wearing her headscarf might choose the latter. Or worse, have that choice made for her by others. The ban also deprives women financial independence — essential for empowerment.

A Muslim-free teaching cadre denudes students of an opportunity to develop cultural understanding and religious tolerance. It also inhibits diversity of thought, perspectives, and experience, and advances insularity and group-think.

Finally, prejudice and exclusion on spurious claims about neutrality and assimilation deprive societies of the benefits from incorporating all talent within it. Research shows that group-think and decisions made under conditions of homogeneity are generally sub-optimal to those that incorporate diversity.

Aside from the human rights arguments, discrimination has economic consequences. At a minimum, German pragmatism should recognise the financial benefits and overcome the fear of the hijab.

Dr Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice-chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, and a professor of law


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