Hijab Controversy

The hijab has become an increasingly divisive symbol in Europe; other traditional Muslim women’s garments like the Burqa, Niqab, and perhaps most infamously, the “Burkini,” are not exempt from the confusion and hysteria either. Despite the fact that only a minority of Muslim women in Europe are fully veiled, the hijab and similar garments are hypervisible and hypersexualised in Western society. In response to perceptions of the hijab as an ideological threat, countries have taken steps to rearticulate core national values, tighten definitions of citizenship, and even ban the hijab altogether. However, not all debates around Europe have led to the same policy outcomes.

France and Germany are particularly useful illustrations for this phenomenon. One might assume that the two nations would have similar policy responses to the headscarf, as both are members of the European Union and share similar Western, liberal values. They also share histories of Muslim immigration and currently accommodate the largest and second-largest Muslim populations in Europe, respectively. However, while France passed a law in 2011 banning the full-face veil in public spaces, Germany has adopted a more lenient stance, despite a growing movement for such legislation. Instead, such instances are handled on a case by case and state by state basis, with decisions ranging from complete bans to absolute freedom.

What is being regulated, and whom do these regulations most affect? On paper, France has prohibited the “full-face veil” in “all public spaces,” citing security concerns and the need for religious neutrality; this legislation precludes women from wearing the veil in the workplace, schools, hospitals, roads, streets—essentially, anywhere outside of the home. The full-face veil, however, is rarely worn by Muslim women in Europe; instead, most women elect to wear scarves that cover only their hair and ears. As a result, indiscriminate social and political exclusion of Muslim women, wearing any type of clothing that resembles the full-face veil, runs rampant.

In Germany, there is no national policy restricting the wearing of headscarves. In fact, in 2003, the German Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic scarf to school. Tracing the discrepancies between France’s and Germany’s legislative approaches to the hijab is no easy task, but there can be seen an underlying difference in the attitudes of these two states. This difference emerges in large part as a result of Germany’s status as a federal state and France’s as a unitary republic. Consequently, Germany does not have any universal regulation of the headscarf in place. Federal states have chosen to confront the political quagmire of the hijab in various ways, which may be organized into four main policy models. The liberal model, which tends to allow for greater freedom of dress in public areas, is favored by states like Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Rhineland-Palatinate. The flexible regulation model, practiced in Bremen and Lower Saxony, deals with the headscarf issue on a case by case basis. The Christian model, implemented in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Hesse, only permits Judeo-Christian religious symbols, as these are viewed as an integral part of Germany’s cultural tradition. Finally, the secular model, followed in Berlin, makes no exceptions, proscribing all religious symbols for all civil servants.

Curiously, no other religious clothing is as contested, scrutinised, and regulated as the Muslim veil. In the name of secularism and religious neutrality, the hijab and those who wear it are systematically excluded from the public eye, even as the issue falls under greater public scrutiny. The debate surrounding the hijab is grossly skewed in terms of gender, as it mostly disregards any consideration of Muslim men’s religious clothing. And, it should be noted, the hijab’s presence in the political sphere is decidedly separate from other, similar garments—neither the nun’s habit nor the Jewish kippah face the same level of legislative control. This is perhaps due to the reductionist, Islamophobic sentiments expressed by many members of the political establishment. Just last year, a French minister compared veil wearers to “Negroes who accept slavery,” and, although his statement does not encompass the entire nation’s views about the hijab, it reflects the insidious nature of Islamophobia. Indeed, by likening hijabis to “slaves,” one makes the orientalist assumption that Muslim women are passive victims of identity principles, who need to be saved by Western legislation.

In order to make sense of these discrepancies, it is important to remember that policies do not exist in a vacuum. Policy decisions are informed by a constellation of beliefs and assumptions shared by members of a given community, which inform the legislators of what society deems acceptable. In this case, distinct repertoires of “French values” and “German values” demarcate characteristics of ideal citizens. These values are used as a metric for deciding to what degree a particular society will accept the hijab, if it chooses to do so at all.

The history of French and German interactions with Muslim populations can provide an explanation as to why France’s attitude towards the hijab is far harsher than that of Germany. France’s colonization of Algeria, which persisted until the Algerian War for independence in the mid-20th century, continues to haunt the French Republic. In fact, the Algerian occupation was a topic considered, for many years, to be too traumatic to publicly discuss. Despite the fact that the war caused one million deaths, French officials took 37 years to admit that the Algerian “conflict” was actually a war.

Ever since France became a colonial power in North Africa, women’s clothing has served as a nexus for debates concerning female sexual morality, oppression, and cultural backwardness; attempts to alter and westernize the clothing of colonized women fit into a larger mission to “civilize” them. During the Algerian War, a “de-veiling” event was held on a podium in Government Square at the center of Algiers: a group of generals who were determined to keep Algeria as a part of France choreographed a ceremony where Algerian women were publicly “de-veiled” as a sign of emancipation and as a rejection of Algerian revolutionaries seeking to liberate the colony from French control.

The debate over the control of women served as a key dialectical encounter between Western and Muslim societies during colonization, fueled by Orientalist fantasies of veiled women in harems, of female subjugation to a culture perceived as anachronistic, and of the oppression of wives by their polygamous husbands. In fact, the French Governor-General of Algeria at the time, Thomas Bugeaud, remarked, “Les Arabes nous échappent parce qu’ils dissimulent leurs femmes à nos regards” (“We cannot control the Arabs because they hide their women from our sight”). Traditionally, women have constituted symbolic boundaries of ethnic and national groups, demarcating who can belong to a community and who cannot. Women have been fetishised as the primary caregivers, given the task of socializing children and thus molding archetypal citizens. As a result, women are often seen as carriers of a community’s “honor” and culture. If the Muslim woman's body is seen as a politically significant, cultural marker, then bodily performances manifested in styles of dress can demonstrate allegiance to particular values. In this case, when a Muslim woman chooses to wear a hijab, her garment constitutes a metonymic statement of her loyalty to a religion that has, in the Western consciousness, long been framed as violent and averse to modernity. As we will examine later, one of France’s key republican values has long been an allegiance to the state. Wearing the headscarf thus becomes the ultimate test of French citizenship.

In contrast to France, Germany has not been burdened by the same colonial legacy. Instead, Germany has maintained a working relationship with its Muslim population through foreign labor contracts. In the 1950s and 1960s, Germany implemented a guest-worker (Gastarbeiter) model, in which foreigners were given incentives to immigrate due to the high demand for cheap, industrial labor fueled by postwar reconstruction efforts. Although anti-immigration sentiments flared up when recession hit in 1973, there was no particular fixation on Muslim women’s attire at the time. Furthermore, the traumatic memory of the Holocaust  has produced an aversion towards alienating groups on the basis of race or religion.

With the increase of immigrants in France and guest-workers in Germany after the Second World War, both societies felt a pressing need to accommodate foreign populations that were perceived to hold values incompatible with European culture. France dealt with this issue by developing a policy of assimilationism, which promoted the construction of a common, national culture as opposed to a more pluralistic society. One’s original language or culture, including religious beliefs, were to be left at home; the hijab was decried as a rejection of French values and a refusal to assimilate to French society. With the rise of France’s far-right party, the Front National (FN), the issue of Muslim immigrants became highly politicised. The FN capitalised on anti-immigrant sentiments and drew on colonial stereotypes that portrayed Arabs as untrustworthy vagrants who sought to live on handouts, who would fuel crime, and who would undermine France’s sacred national identity.

In Germany, the state did not create an integration policy, as it was widely believed that, after the expiration of their labor contracts, guest-workers would return to their place of origin. Even as the total foreign population grew to nine percent in the 1990s, successive Christian Democratic Union (CDU)-led governments continued to proclaim that Germany was “not a country of immigration.” Hence, rather than making an effort to assimilate Muslim guest-workers, the laissez-faire policy of Multikulti allowed immigrants to retain their cultural identity while living alongside German citizens. In the 2000s, however, it became apparent that Germany had indeed become a country of immigrants and thus needed to create a new idea of citizenship to accommodate its new population. This policy, known as Leitkultur, shifted the idea of citizenship away from the traditional ethno-cultural sense of nationhood to a more multicultural and integrationist model. The implementation of Leitkultur explains why Germany has, in some instances, allowed for greater leeway in expressing cultural distinctiveness.

While the differences between strict and lenient citizenship models can explain the degree to which the hijab is accepted in different societies, they only tell part of the story. In modern French discourse, the Muslim veil is often cited as the antithesis of core national values. This argument is particularly interesting because “core values,” such as “freedom” or “equality,” are not monolithic, static terms and are not nearly as easy to define as they may seem. In order to unpack the core values referenced in modern French discourse, we must turn to France’s founding principle of republicanism.

When the French state proclaims that its core national values are a, b, and c and its citizens are characterized by x, y, and z, the state is declaring itself the final arbiter for deciding fundamental French values. In France, this particular relationship between the individual, state, and society strongly shapes public discourse and policy decisions, via a mechanism called republicanism. In the Republican way of thinking, living together—vivre ensemble—promotes shared civic values and rejects public expressions of certain identities. As a result, belonging to the nation and functioning in the public sphere requires that distinct cultures and ideas be restricted to the private realm. As a result, when the headscarf, an emblem of Islamic identity, dares to intrude into the public space, its wearer is seen as rejecting the French belief in “living together.” The French state thus plays a positive and active role in “correcting” the hijabi’s failure to assimilate into French society.

This tradition of the centrally designed, state-society-religion nexus has roots in France’s strict separation of the church and the state, institutionalized by a 1905 law after a centuries-long conflict between the state and the Catholic church. Part of this anticlerical legacy is France’s core value of laïcité. Notoriously difficult to define, laïcité is often conflated with secularism. However, it is crucial to understand the difference between these two principles, as the former emerges regularly in the headscarf debate. According to French political scientist Olivier Roy, secularism is a social phenomenon whereby society emancipates itself from a sense of the sacred, even if the society does not explicitly deny the sacred. For instance, a state may be secular but not laïque, as in the case of the United Kingdom, because it has an official religion; it may even be laïque, in the form of strict separation of church and state, while still recognising the role of religion in the public sphere, as in the United States. Laïcité, on the other hand, is anti-clerical: it is an explicit decree by the state which actively rejects religion and makes the public space a decidedly neutral arena.

Like France, Germany’s justification for its anti-hijab stance has been rooted in secularism. However, unlike France’s strict principle of laïcité, Germany’s secularism should be defined more as open neutrality. The essence of open neutrality lies in the state’s concern for assuring that individuals have the freedom to practice religion in both the private and public spheres. The roots of open neutrality may be traced to Germany’s never having experienced the same level of anticlerical conflict and strict separation of church and state as emerged in France. Moreover, after the Holocaust, Jewish traditions were integrated into German culture, requiring the state to accommodate different religions. Hence, open neutrality is grounded in the idea that the state should not be “identifying with any one religion” but guaranteeing that “all religions in society are treated by the state in an even-handed and impartial way.” Here, Germany differs significantly from France in that it guarantees the freedom to practice religion in both the private and public spheres, whereas France guarantees the freedom from religion in public spheres.

Ultimately, what might seem to be an innocuous piece of cloth has become a hyperbolized threat to the stability and foundational values of the nation-state. National ideologies are culturally distinct narratives that demarcate who belongs in society and who does not, and each culture holds certain values in higher esteem than others. The future of European hijabis hangs by a thread amongst acrimonious debate, as both Marine Le-Pen and Angela Merkel promise to banish the hijab. The policies that emerge from this discourse will surely play an integral role in the future of the ever-evolving idea of citizenship in an increasingly globalized world.     

EuropeMi Yeon Kimmedia