German hijab debate: court vetoes current restrictions on the hijab in the Bavarian justice system – with a caveat

New case brought by an aspiring lawyer

A 25-year-old junior lawyer, Aqilah Sandhu, won a court case against the Bavarian state regarding her right to wear her headscarf while at work ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/kopftuch-verbot-jura-studentin-besiegt-den-freistaat-1.3056761)). In July 2014, the Munich Higher Regional Court had denied Sandhu, at the time a legal intern at the court, the right to wear a hijab while hearing a witness or while participating in court proceedings as judge or prosecutor.

When questioned by Sandhu, her superiors justified this move by pointing to the need for the judiciary to remain religiously and ideologically neutral. The ensuing restrictions not only had an adverse impact on Sandhu’s training but also dimmed her prospects of finding employment in the judicial sector. The Augsburg Administrative Court ruled that the demand that Sandhu remove her hijab had been unlawful.

Debate on the hijab still not settled

However, the reason given for the verdict in Sandhu’s favour were above all formal: when prohibiting the legal intern to wear a hijab, her employer had acted on the basis of customary practice and of an administrative order from the Bavarian Ministry of Justice – not on the basis of a formal law debated and enacted by the Bavarian parliament. Yet it is such a law that would be necessary in order to legitimise any restriction placed on the freedom of religion and the freedom of education, or so the Administrative Court argued.

Thus, the ruling is only a further chapter in the German hijab debate rather than the debate’s conclusion: the Bavarian Ministry of Justice already announced that it would seek to overturn the verdict. And even if future court decisions are again in Sandhu’s favour, the ruling of the administrative court still leaves the Bavarian state the possibility to formally ban religious symbols from the judicial system through the enactment of a new law – a law that the conservative majority in the Bavarian state parliament might very well be willing to pass.

Constitutional question marks

In fact, the state of Berlin opted for such a legislative route: in the capital, a ‘neutrality law’ bans all religious symbols from public institutions. In April 2016, a Muslim teacher, who had sued the authorities after they prohibited her from working in primary school with her hijab, had her case rejected by the Berlin Labour Court: the court argued that the relevant Berlin law treats all religions equally, and that claims of religious discrimination were therefore unfounded ((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-04/kopftuchverbot-berlin-urteil-arbeitsgericht-lehrerinnen)).

But even the Berlin case is not clear-cut, since its relationship to a March 2015 judgement by the German Constitutional Court remains ambiguous: the country’s supreme court had argued in 2015 that teachers at public schools had to be allowed to wear a headscarf – unless the hijab causes ‘major disturbances’ in the school’s daily operation, a somewhat vague addendum ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/03/23/the-lifting-of-the-headscarf-ban-one-year-on-german-state-laws-and-practices-slow-to-change/)).

However, the supreme court’s verdict was passed in response to a specific ‘hijab ban’ in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In contrast to the North Rhine-Westphalian law, Berllin’s ‘neutrality law’ does not single out Muslim symbols for prohibition and thus does not privilege Judeo-Christian or any other religious worldviews. The judges at the Labour Court took this to be a decisive difference that legitimised their rejection of the Muslim teacher’s case.

Accepting the hijab or turning towards laicism?

At least current Bavarian practice does not appear to follow a Berlin-style ‘neutrality’, however: one of Aqilah Sandhu’s fellow law students was quoted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper as saying that “I always were a cross necklace, also when I’m working. The cross has always been visible and no one ever said anything. That’s just unfair.” ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/kopftuch-verbot-jura-studentin-besiegt-den-freistaat-1.3056761))

Thus, legislators in traditionally strongly Catholic Bavaria may soon have to decide whether their objections to the visibility of the hijab are so strong that legislators are willing to enact a kind of ‘laic’ neutrality law that also curbs not just the public expression of Muslim religiosity but also the state’s Catholic heritage.

Why I went undercover to investigate female Islamic State supporters

When three Bethnal Green schoolgirls left the UK to join ISIS earlier this year, I was appalled. They had lived and gone to school just over a mile away from where I was brought up and, like so many others, I found it incomprehensible that modern British girls would be attracted to a belief system that states that women are completely inferior and subservient to men; existing only to serve Jihad fighters as wives.

My friend Aisha (cover name), was also deeply affected by what she was seeing.

Also a journalist, she too couldn’t comprehend how and why young people – many with the same backgrounds as ourselves – could not only reject their own families, but also the British values like secularism and democracy that they had grown up with and allowed them to practice their faith and exercise their right to free speech so freely and openly. To make sense of it, we began to research the Channel 4 documentary which caused shock-waves last week. Aisha went undercover to investigate.

Through patience, dedication and commitment, we slowly gained the trust of a key group of women. By hiding our identities in the ‘virtual’ world of twitter we would reach out to them, liking their statuses and tweets, sharing, re-tweeting and creating a sort of ‘girly’ friendship bond. Soon enough, we gained the respect of Umm L, Umm Usmaan and Umm Saalihah as well as others in the concentric circles of the fifth column female disseminators living right here. Aisha painstakingly bided her time over a number of months. It requires immense patience to create a relationship with the women who trust almost no-one and publicly call out those who they think are spies or journalists. Aisha was wary of asking too many questions; gaining their confidence by answering all the questions they had regarding her.

After helping them leaflet at an ‘Islamic roadshow’ in Lewisham, Aisha was invited to their study circles. Captured just weeks before the attacks in Paris, her undercover footage shows some of the leading female Islamic State sympathisers who, in weekly two-hour lectures, use racially abusive language to describe Jews and Israelis and urge young Muslim women to travel to Syria to join ISIS.

After 12 months infiltrating these groups, I have learnt that the threat from these women and their role in the jihadi war has been severely underestimated.

These seemingly well-integrated women – one was a careers advisor – are charming, persuasive and convincing. Groups like ISIS understand this and are capitalising on their pulling power. The ‘softening up’ effect of these messages on women is important to recognise. Women glorifying jihad to not just other young girls, but also to their very small children is particularly worrying.

I truly believe ISIS want to split the world into two camps; ‘us versus them’ and engender the kind of hatred that resulted in the vicious verbal attack on a young British Muslim woman, Ruhi Rehman last week on the Metro in Newcastle.

After Paris, Isis must have known hate crimes against Muslims were going to rise; it’s what they were counting on – the rejection and vilification of Muslims.

If people turn on each other now, that will be a victory for them. More than ever, we need to stick together which is why I was so heartened to hear how the passengers on that Newcastle train came to Ruhi’s rescue. That, for me, demonstrates British values of liberty and tolerance at their best. Surely that ideology is our best defence against terror.

UK hijabi competes in Clipper Round The World Yacht Race

Breaking down negative stereotypes, a British veiled Muslim woman is taking part in the world’s longest ocean race, proving that hijab has never been a barrier in the life of Muslim women.

“I’ve got my headscarf on, I’m going to do my prayers … go forth, the world is your oyster!” Noreen Rahman, maths teacher from Walthamstow, east London, told NBC news on Monday, August 31.

The 32-year-old Muslim woman aims to defy the negative misconceptions surrounding her faith and the hijab by participating in the 10th Clipper Round The World Yacht Race. Rahman is one of the 700 participants from 12 teams who will spend a year travelling the globe during the eight-stage race.

With a carnival-like opening ceremony and a parade under the iconic Tower Bridge on the sheltered waters of the River Thames, the race kicked off in London on Sunday. Participants from 44 countries started their journey from St Katharine’s Dock to travel 40,000 nautical miles. About 40% of the participants, who will travel 6,000 miles to Brazil’s Rio De Janeiro, have no previous sailing experience.

The world’s longest ocean race will see teachers, doctors, IT workers and students taking part, with ages ranging between 18 and 74. Taking the tough challenge, Rahman will be sailing across the Atlantic in Leg 1 of the race, as part of the Great Britain crew. “I am a traditional, Muslim Pakistani woman and I want people to know that we do not have to be restricted by the bubble society has put us in,” she told The Telegraph.

The Veil at School: Malika Sorel’s Response to Minister of Education, Najat Valluad-Belkacem

Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has stated that she believes veiled mothers should be allowed to accompany their children on school trips, contrary to the law currently in place. Malika Sorel, member of the Haut Conseil a L’Integration (Council for Integration) responds.

Sorel quotes Abdelwahab Meddeb who stated that the veil “is an infringement on the principle of equality and on the respect between sexes…it is fitting to place the veil in a society that chauvinistic, misogynistic, that is constructed on the separation of the sexes, on a gender hierarchy.” She believes that “these school trips are integral parts of the educational project and that they are placed under the auspice of the Republic. There is no ambiguity on this point and if we had a real political and administrative elite, Minister Luc Chapel would not have had to clarify. He did it—and it’s to his credit—to protect the school staff that is first in line, and because tensions began to occur in the field, as we reported to the High Council of Integration.”

She states, “Our political elites, for many, and as I have observed, no longer defend the public interest. They are quick to give in at the least offensive. We are in a classic balance of power and our elites, who do not fear the French people, began—and this is unfortunately not new—to take France and the Republic as adjustable variables, hence the sacrifice of secularism and cultural norms that govern [France’s] well-being. To reduce the whole analysis to a simple question of clothing would be a mistake.”

Sorel states that politicians “know that a woman who wears a veil becomes a walking moral lesson for other Muslims that can lead to pressure to also [wear the veil]…The veil is thus not neutral and can be transformed into an instrument that denies liberty to some women.” She also states that according to a recent survey by CREDOC the French feel “increasingly disturbed by these signs, and 81% wish to see [the veil] banned in private enterprises. I therefore don’t see how the decision of Najat Vallad-Belkacem could be likened to any gesture of appeasement or tolerance.”

She concludes, “Unfortunately for a long time our politicians have dared to risk anything and everything, including the destabilization of France’s foundations, without really taking into account the consequences: there is a safe bet that the French people are not dead, have not committed suicide, and that they are coming out, little by little, from their long unconscious state.”