The recent precedents in favour of letting girls and women wear full-face veils in schools and universities have fuelled discussions around a so-called burqa and niqab ban across Germany. While some politicians and activists insist that such a measure is needed, calling the full-face veil a symbol of oppression, others are strongly against such a move, citing the freedom to don any religious symbols. The border between them even runs across one political force, the Green Party.
The new spiral of debates around the garment was sparked by a Hamburg court verdict that sided with the mother of a 16-year-old, whose school wanted to ban her from wearing the niqab, covering her face completely except for a slit for the eyes. Earlier in February, the court ruled in her favour, citing her "right to unconditional protection of her freedom of religion”. However, the ruling pointed out this freedom could be limited only on a legal basis, and there is no such limitation in the education legislation of the city.
A similar ruling decided in favour of burqas and niqabs in Schleswig-Holstein in the north of the country, where the Green Party blocked attempts to ban donning full-face covers at local universities at the end of January, citing religious freedom. The debate around changing the regulations goes back to a plea by Kiel's Christian Albrechts University. It struggled to forbid a Muslim student from wearing a full-face veil in classes as she ignored this ban.
The Green Party went against its coalition partners, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), who sought to include a burqa ban in the university law.
Symbol of Oppression or Religious Symbol?
However, the opinions on such measures are divided even within the Green Party. In Hamburg, following the court decision, the city’s governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, decided to try to ban full-face veils in their city’s school legislation.
The Green Party’s Katharina Fegebank, who is Hamburg's deputy mayor, branded such garments as symbols of oppression of women in a comment for the German outlet Deutsche Welle. Notably, the ban has also found support within the opposition parties, the CDU, the FDP and the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The government in Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany, composed of the Greens and the CDU, is also eyeing a burqa ban for schools. Its state premier Winfried Kretschmann, representing the Green Party pointed out that “in an open society, people should show their faces”.
"Teaching is based on open communication, which also manifests itself via gestures and facial expressions. A covered face prevents such open communication”, its Culture Minister Susanne Eisenmann explained to Deutsche Welle, adding that freedom of religion has its limits.
Is the Burqa Ban Unconstitutional?
This approach is not unanimous, though, as even Kretschmann’s fellow party members, Sandra Detzer and Oliver Hildenbrand accused the minister of pursuing an agenda that ultimately only strengthens the right-wing. Filiz Polat, migration policy spokesperson for the party’s parliamentary group, also sided with those against the general ban, insisting that it is unconstitutional as people can don religious symbols and should not be barred from access to the educational system due to a burqa ban.
At the same time, scholar on Islam Riem Spielhaus, has warned against the marginalisation of women and girls who don full-face veils, insisting that it could radicalise Muslims when a dialogue is needed.
Countering Face Veils in Germany and Europe
There is no federal burqa ban in Germany although several European states have gone down the path of banning full-face covers in public places. France became the first EU country to introduce a ban in 2010, which was later joined by Austria (2017), Denmark (2018), the Netherlands and Belgium, where a ban on face-covering garments became law in 2015 but was suspended two years later by the European Court of Human Rights concerning full-face veils.