Europe still struggling with headscarf

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For several years now, the Muslim headscarf has been the subject of heated debate between Dutch political parties. However, other European countries also host widely diverging opinions on the Islamic veil. When she was conducting research for her doctoral thesis, Doutje Lettinga found that there is considerable variety in the outcome of these debates.


Headscarves have been banned from French public schools since 2004. In parts of Germany, the ban only applies to teachers, whereas the debate is still raging in the Netherlands.
Doutje Lettinga from the VU University Amsterdam conducted research into the international political debate on the headscarf. She came to the conclusion that national ideas about religion and ethnicity play an important role.

“France has a secular tradition. Religion is seen as belonging in the private realm. In the Netherlands, expressions of faith are allowed in public spaces, and all religions are seen as equal. In some German federal states majority groups are allowed to wear religious symbols, whereas minorities are not. A nun, for instance, is allowed to teach while wearing a habit.”

Hundreds of debates
The rise of populist parties has put the headscarf back in a prominent place on the political agenda. Critics see the headscarf as a symbol of the failed integration of migrants and the oppression of women. In the Netherlands – where criticism of the ‘multi-cultural’ society has been growing since the 1990s – the political debate involves a growing number of participants. Doutje Lettinga says the women wearing the headscarf are being ignored.

“Out of the hundreds of debates and political discussions that I’ve seen, only a few bothered to invite women who wear headscarves to speak their mind. Only Muslimas who were critical of the headscarf were given a voice, in particular in France and Germany. In the Netherlands, women who wear headscarves could address their grievances to the Equal Treatment Commission, which was an important forum for Muslimas seeking to assert their rights.”

Self confidence
Famile Arslan was the first lawyer in the Netherlands to wear a head scarf. Judges and public prosecutors are not allowed to wear headscarves in Dutch courts because they need to be seen as neutral and impartial. This does not apply to lawyers. Famile Raslan says that the headscarf has always been a subject of discussion in the Netherlands:

In the past you would only occasionally see a cleaning women wear a headscarf. Many of the children of the first generation of migrants have secondary education and have climbed up the social ladder. They are more like: Here I am! I have a certain religion and I bear witness to it. This self-confident attitude increasingly meets with opposition.”

Clear debate
The political debate in The Hague can be rough. Opponents of the headscarf do not mince their words. Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders at one point proposed introducing a tax on headscarves, or, as he put it: a head rag tax. Neither the phrase nor the proposal ever met with wide acceptance. Just like her colleagues at the Freedom Party, conservative MP Jeanine Hennis proposed barring people in government service from wearing a headscarf.

Lawyer Famile Arslan says the debate has encouraged her:
“Looking in from abroad, what’s happening in the Netherlands may appear quite shocking but we are ahead of most other countries. At least in the Netherlands the debate is being held. It is better to have the differences of opinion out in the open instead of allowing these feelings to fester underground. The rise of Wilders has served to mobilise Muslims and made them stand up for their rights.”

The government is hard at work on its new integration policy, which includes a ban on wearing a burqa as of 2013. And the last word on the headscarf has not been spoken either.