The stuff of conflict

How and why the Muslim headscarf is polarizing

There are only three verses in the Koran concerning the clothing of the Muslim woman, and they are vaguely formulated. Yet conservative and even more so fundamentalist streams of Islam argue in favor of the hijab, i.e. the headscarf or the veil, as if the allegedly God-given commandment to wear the veil were the sixth pillar of Islam. A book by Sabine Berghahn and Petra Rostock shows with scientific precision and multiple "aha" effects what the "headscarf controversy" in its various forms is all about, how Islamic feminism differs from Western feminism, and why all of this is an ie for society as a whole.

If we are to believe a number of more or less self-proclaimed futurologists such as Matthias Horx or John Naisbitt, the Internet has been the "Megatrend women". This means that women are not only gradually conquering all the male bastions, but that the subject of women is also dominating the scientific, political and literary stages. Although striking statements of this kind usually obfuscate rather than illuminate, in a certain sense this "trend" does apply to "the" Muslim woman.

The stuff of conflict

In the debate about the democratic capacity of Islam and the willingness of Muslims to integrate in the countries of the Western world, it is above all the Muslim image of women that plays a decisive role alongside the legal understanding of Islam. Immigrants’ acceptance of European values shaped by Greco-Roman antiquity, Christianity and the Enlightenment, and the openness of European majority societies to "the other" have become something of a litmus test of integration.

When most people in Europe hear the word "Muslim woman," they reflexively associate it with the headscarf – "the flag of the Islamic crusade that wants to deform the entire world into a state of God," as Alice Schwarzer once railed. This association is usually joined by others such as oppression, honor killing or genital muting.

Accordingly, the headscarf and veil have become negative symbols in Western culture, literally the "stuff of conflict," as Berlin-based scholars Sabine Berghahn and Petra Rostock call their book, published by Transcript Verlag. In this book, in addition to their own contributions, the two scholars have compiled a wealth of studies by other authors who explain the topic of the "hijab" from the perspectives of law, social science, and cultural studies. Among other things, the legal and political "headscarf controversy" in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is documented. Likewise, the historical processes of the current controversy are named and reference is made to contemporary Koranic exegeses. It is particularly gratifying that Islamic feminism and its difference from Western feminism is also discussed in detail, a topic that is often neglected in the discourse on Islam. In this way, it has been possible to show the different aspects of the problem and to illuminate the values and principles of the dispute. Whereby the emphasis lies rather on the effort for understanding for the "headscarf supporters".

Clothing as a metaphor

The problematization of Muslim women’s clothing began in the context of French and British colonial policy in the Middle East, when the "hijab" increasingly took on a representative function.

For example, when France began to occupy Algeria in 1830, it sought to "Frenchify" that country. For this, the colonial power had to smash the old Algerian structures. And women played a major role in this process. As Frantz Fanon, a French writer and psychiatrist who went to Algeria in 1953 and worked there as a chief physician, wrote in his 1959 book "In the Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution":

"If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, the first thing we have to do is conquer the women, we have to set out to find them behind the veil where they hide and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight."

Consequently, France tried to emancipate women, for example, by setting up aid organizations to support Algerian women, developing schooling for women and girls, and broadcasting radio programs on women’s rights. In all of these pictures, women were encouraged to take off the veil, an ugly symbol of oppression. Public unveiling actions took place in many cases. However, as much as many Algerian women buried the emancipatory paths, these amptions were still quasi-poisoned.

Conversely, the anti-colonial Algerian resistance also took advantage of the gender discourse by declaring the Algerian woman to be the guardian of Arab-Islamic values and elevating her to the status of a symbol of religious and cultural identity. As a result, many Algerian men viewed an unveiled Algerian woman as a collaborator. "Unveiling" was seen as a capitulation to the European colonizers. Thus, Algerian women found themselves in a real dilemma.

The Algerian sociologist and feminist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas, born in 1939, who had actively participated in the struggle for independence, commented on the dilemma in the 1980s as follows:

"So how could we take up the problem of the veil as an oppressor of women without betraying both the nation and the revolution?? Many young women, even those raised in liberal families, voluntarily wore the veil as a demonstration of their allegiance to the oppressed Algerian people … We did not realize the consequences of such ideological confusion. We were also afraid of betraying the people, the revolution and the nation. At no point did we see that on top of our mental confusion, a power structure was being erected, which was truncated to the control of private life and women …"

Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas: "Women, Nationalism, and Religion in the Algerian Liberation Struggle," 1987

In the context of colonial policy, the hijab had thus finally become a symbol of the oppression of women and the backwardness of a society – or, as the Berlin-based lawyer Cengiz Baskammaz calls it in this book, proof of "the ontological difference and inferiority of Islamic societies" "Die postkoloniale Konstruktion des Kopftuches", S. 369).

The problems of this historical situation seem like a distorted reflection of our present. Just as "the West" had once begun to establish the veil as a metaphor of oppression within the framework of colonial discourse, it suddenly became a symbol of identity and resistance for the Muslim side in return. This reciprocal symbolism has remained largely intact to this day. For many Muslim women, especially in Western countries, the headscarf is less a religious requirement than a mark of identity, often even a conscious signal of demarcation. The fear of losing one’s own identity, one’s "own face" and one’s traditional culture and of being taken over by the majority society or "the West" is present in many people. Whether rightly or not, remains to be seen. In any case, here are revealed lines of conflict of the European immigration debates.

A typical phenomenon of this generation are the so-called Neo-Muslimas. This is how sociologist Sigrid Nokel describes young women with a Muslim background in her book "Die Tochter der Gastarbeiter und der Islam" (The Daughter of the Guest Workers and Islam), who are once again turning more strongly to religion and the Islamic dress code, while at the same time successfully integrating themselves into the higher education system and developing professional ambitions. These women define themselves through biculturalism and religion and deliberately emphasize it. A 32-year-old academic who had been wearing a headscarf since 15. The report says that the woman is "covered", i.e. wears a headscarf:

"At some point I realized: I can’t be German, I’m not a Turk. But I am a Muslim."

There are two main reasons given for wearing a headscarf and Islamic dress:

  1. the protection from stress of men
  2. The deliberate differentiation and demarcation of non-pious women and non-Muslim women

If you combine the three Koranic passages (Suras 24:31, 33 .53 and 33:59), which are about women’s clothing and gender segregation, and the two most commonly cited reasons for wearing the headscarf, a fairly clear scenario emerges. On the one hand, it’s about protecting women from pushy men, and on the other hand, it’s about setting oneself apart from those who think differently. And these are the two ies that are so polarizing in the societies of Germany and Europe. In fact, the what – what should the woman cover – polarizes even less than the why – why should the woman cover or conceal herself.

And this why points directly to the understanding of gender roles and the equality of men and women in Islam. The reasoning behind the veil requirement reduces every woman to a creature, "that draws out stimuli", thus makes them the object of male desires, aspirations and hormones, as the Islamic scholar Claudia Knieps put it in an essay ("Konfliktstoff Kopftuch") in 2005. It also points out that equality in Islam, at least in its traditional form, is understood differently than in Western culture. In fact, even among Muslim feminists, a model of society with complementary gender roles is predominantly represented, the equivalence of which is seen in the fair distribution of rights and duties. The Islamic scholar Silvia Horsch puts it this way:

"The rights and duties are different, but there is equality in that they (the duties) are distributed fairly.“


Conversely, as Birgit Rommelspacher points out, many Muslim feminists accuse their Western counterparts of measuring emancipation not by the unequal distribution of work, income and status between men and women, but by the gap between Western and Muslim women. However, these conflicting points of view affect questions of power in society as a whole and in politics.

Perhaps this is the deeper reason why in the headscarf dispute Islamic associations in Germany argue so violently, as if the ban on the veil were the sixth pillar of Islam (Knieps). In fact, however, the opinion that the headscarf obligation is clearly derived from the Koran is only one of several interpretations within the Islamic spectrum. What is often ignored in the focus on the headscarf in its proxy function.

Muslims who do not wear headscarves are not perceived as such by the general public. In Germany, however, this figure is around 70 percent, i.e. more than two-thirds, as the study presented by the Ministry of the Interior in June 2009 showed. Among these opponents of a universally binding veil requirement, which in fact cannot be necessarily derived from the Qur’an on the basis of contemporary exegesis, are both devout Muslim women and women of a sacular persuasion.

Necla Kelek put it exactly in 2005 in her book "The Foreign Bride":

The veil is mentioned in the Koran, it is true. But unlike daily prayer or fasting, which are timeless commandments to the glory of Allah, this does not apply to dress codes. They owe their existence to a specific historical context. They were once introduced as a measure to protect women from sexual violence and men from loss of honor.

Instead of punishing the perpetrators, the victims were veiled. The veil was not introduced as a sign of faith, as the strict believers claim, but to protect women from the intrusiveness of men. Because men are constantly tempted by the devilish aura of women and cannot control themselves, women must be made "invisible" by the veil and banished from public life. An ingenious double strategy.

But how does a democracy come to accept the veil or the headscarf?? Here we do not need the veil as a protection against violence. There are laws for that. And they do not force the victim to restrict his freedom, but the potential offender to restrain himself under the threat of punishment.

This position of Kelek’s emphasizes once more the symbolic or even placeholder function of the "hijab". Ultimately, this is about a societal, i.e. sociological and political discourse that is conditioned by the question of integration; it is about consensus on values, gender relations and compatibility with the Basic Law – and about the mutual fear of loss of identity.

A few inaccuracies in the content and a few errors of alignment – for example, the wrong abbreviation for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany: ZDM instead of the correct ZMD – do not detract from the informational value of this multifaceted collection of arguments and materials by Sabine Berghahn and Petra Rostock on the subject of the "headscarf debate. They simply call for reading the book with an attentive distance in terms of content as well.

Sabine Berghahn, Petra Rostock (eds.): Der Stoff, dem Konflikte sind – Debatten um das Kopftuch, transcript Verlag Bielefeld, 2009, €29.80, ISBN 978-3-89942-959-6

The Qantara Internet portal, which is run by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Deutsche Welle, the Goethe-Institut and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, also offers a wide range of information and arguments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *