“Ḥarām, Ḥarām!” an old woman yelled at Fatma Turgut, a Turkish journalist working and living in Berlin, while pointing at Fatma’s naked 2-year old daughter at a public swimming pool in Neukölln, Berlin. The distraught mother couldn’t believe her ears – that much Arabic she understood. The elderly woman, who must have been sweating underneath her burka on this hot summer’s day in cosmopolitan Berlin, had just accused her daughter of sin. Fatma was too perplexed to respond.
It is easy for those of us who neither wear a veil nor a burka to understand Fatma’s shock. When it comes to comprehending the thoughts of women under the veil and their motivation for wearing the veil, we are clueless or have vague ideas that such rules on dress might be linked to female oppression but are afraid to voice our thoughts.
It is estimated that between 3.8 and 4.3 million Muslims live in Germany which makes up for a mere 5 % of the country’s population. Yet, ironically 46.1 % of Germans feel threatened by, what to them appears an invasion of Muslim traditions. In fact, this warped view as well as a widely accepted Muslim stereotype is the root cause for much misunderstanding. An estimate of 38.000 Muslims living in Germany are organised within fundamentalist organisations closely monitored by state security – that makes up for only 1 % – while only every fifth Muslim woman between the age of 16 and 25 covers her hair with a headscarf or covers her body in a burka.
While the majority of Muslims are neither fundamentalist nor believe wearing a veil or the burka makes a faithful Muslim, the minority, like the old lady at the pool in Berlin, continue to believe in the set of laws which has remained unchanged down the centuries and whose importance is stressed by controversial Muslim organisations.
Gönül Yerli, a married mother of three is the deputy director at the state-monitored Islamic Community Penzberg (Islamische Gemeinde Penzberg IGP) and owns around 150 headscarves. The articulate woman, who was born in Turkey but raised in Germany, insists that any reasonable Muslim has to be against the sharia, the religious law of Islam. “What use is a law where feet and arms are chopped off and where women are stoned? Is there any freedom in that? Is that human?” Gönül Yerli exclaims. Yet, when it comes to the rights of women, the confident woman who studied to become a religion teacher at the Institute for Interreligious Education and Teaching in Cologne (IPD Köln), which has close links to the controversial Islamic organisation Millî Görüş, interprets thesharia law differently. “We rather safeguard our religion than to obtain education,” are the supportive words Gönül has for women who rather adhere to the Islamic rules on dress than to attend university in Turkey, where veiled women are banned from attending lectures.
It is shocking that such highly-organised communities like Gönül’s, often inter-connected to one another through the umbrella organisation Millî Görüs, are taken to represent the Islamic community as a whole. This minority is always keen to share its views with the media and to advise the government on matters of integration. This split within Germany’s Muslim community has created a scenario where on the one hand, journalists must be careful not to be accused of racism and on the other hand, the Muslim stereotype is being reinforced whenever journalists do speak up.
Nevertheless, it is high-time this “false tolerance” came to an end. By not addressing the concerns that come with radical Islamic minorities, such as the state-monitored organisation Millî Görüş, we are putting the future of whole generations of Muslim women at risk. At a talk at the Senate in Paris Djemila Benhabib, a French-Algerian feminist who witnessed first-hand the demeaning role of women within Islam, said “The others are damned to remain victims and we are being treated like racists and Islamophobes because we stand up for gender equality and for the separation of state and religion”. Even though female oppression solely concerns a minority in Germany, we should not stop fighting against the symbol which stands for gender inequality world-wide.
To uncover what it truly means to live under the veil, I have decided to wear a burka for one day. Unlike many of the young females who have been pressured into wrapping themselves in layers of black fabric by their families or their communities, I wear the burkavoluntarily.
As I look into the mirror, all I recognise are my bibig blue eyes. My pale fingers’ starring green nail polish are covered by black gloves and my sun-burnt shoulders as well as my brown shoulder-length hair has vanished underneath the black cloth which is wide enough to hide my petite figure. I feel that with every centimetre of cloth a part of me has disappeared. I wonder about Cemil Sahinöz’s words. The German-Turkish author, theologist and founder of the Islamic online platform Misawa, informed me that for his fellow female believers the veil was part of their identity. Cemil Sahinözfurther elaborated that, “forcing girls to take off their veil can therefore lead to psychological stress”. I cannot help but think how ironic it is that this man speaks on behalf of all the Muslim girls whose hair is hidden by an elastic band which at times itches but ensures that their hair is neat and invisible to the male gaze.
On the outskirts of Füssen
My experiment takes place in Füssen, a small Bavarian town. Here of all places I expect people accustomed to the sight of women masked in burkas. Füssen, at the foot of the Alps and a five minute drive from the world-famous Castle Neuschwanstein, attracts million of tourists every year. Yet, as I stroll along the cobble stones of the pedestrian area in the heart of Füssen, I notice people glancing at me. Some look me up and down; others give me a quick look from the side. I look bashfully to the ground. Two boys standing at a bus stop stare and whisper. Without a doubt, living under the veil in Germany takes a lot of reassurance from others. Gönül Yerli recalls the first time she wore a headscarf to school. Boys would make nasty remarks. Gönül remembers her luck of having friends she had known from primary school who told her to “ignore them”. This is how Gönül, too afraid to go to school wearing a headscarf as the only pupil, went from putting her headscarf back into her bag at the bus stop at 13 to starting to wear it on a daily basis from the age of 16.
I can only imagine how the young Gönül must have felt. Despite only having been in the outside world dressed in a burka for a less than half an hour, I have the urge to rip the black cloth off and be “myself” again. The burka takes getting used to.
I walk into one of the many little boutiques in Füssen. I buy nothing. What could I buy after all? The shirt I like has short sleeves and I don’t dare to look at the summery dresses with their low necklines. Surely, the shop assistant would look at me in awe should I want to try on any of them, as would Gönül Yerli should her 14 year old daughter want to try on what other teenagers enjoy wearing. Gönül’s daughter wears the headscarf when she visits the mosque and her mother insists that, “we do not want to influence her in her decision whether to wear the headscarf or not and would be happy if she decided on never wearing the headscarf”. Paradoxically, mini-skirts as well as wearing low-neck tops are off limits for the 14-year old daughter of strict Muslims. Gönül justifies the so-called compromise with her daughter by explaining that throughout the centuries male Islamic scholars have deemed hair an attractive feature of women. “The verse in the Qur’an which the dressing rules originate from is set on a 7th century Arabic peninsula, where women were dressed revealingly and were considered ‘fair game’”, explains Gönül Yerli, claiming that modest clothing “regulates society”, and adds that, “women and men are made in a certain way to take over certain tasks in life”.
Eventually I decided to browse around a book shop. Just as I was picking up one of Paulo Coelho’s books, a blonde girl about the age of five, points at me and says something inaudible to her mother. The mother apologises to me, I try to smile with my eyes for the rest of my face is covered and watch as the mother tells her daughter not to point at people.
What should have been a nice morning in this Bavarian small town turned into an unpleasant experience. The limitations as well as the unwanted attention I experienced today and Muslim girls have to face on a daily basis are arguably minor. Yet, accepting this reality forms part of a broader code of conduct Muslim girls wearing a veil or a burka have to adhere to.
The exceptional treatment Muslim parents demand of schools and authorities all come down to gender separation. If schools cannot cater for the separation of female and male pupils, requests for exempting Muslim girls from their participation in certain subjects are rife. These lessons include swimming, physical education and sex education, which all form part of the German school curriculum. Additionally, Muslim school girls are often not allowed to take part in school trips, missing out on extracurricular activities with their peers.
Millî Görüş refers to the landmark court case of 1993 when courts decided in favour of the parents of a 12-year old girl. The girl was given exemption from swimming lessons as well as physical education classes in an appeal hearing. “The Islamic rules on dress do not allow for enough freedom of movement without showing the girl’s bodily shape and it would be unavoidable for the girl to get in physical contact with others during ball games”formed part of the plaintiff’s argument. As a result, several families followed suit and took legal action, often with the help of Islamic organisations and based on Article 4 of the German constitution which guarantees freedom of religion – 20 years later there is however a spark of hope.
At the latest case in 2011, the parents of a 13 year old girl from North Rhine-Westphalia were not granted the right to exempt their daughter from swimming lessons. The court’s recommendation was that the child should wear the Burqini, a swimming suit especially designed for Muslim women. “To me this is the right way,” agrees Cemil Sahinöz.
In contrast to Gönül Yerli, who reluctantly admits that she doubts “a 12 year can be so devoted to God to decide not to go swimming with her fellow classmates,” Cemil Sahinöz insists that “other people should not judge girls who wear the veil voluntarily and with confidence.” Is it not almost comical that Cemil Sahinöz received a prize from Germany’s first female chancellor for his commitment to integration?
Selen Bozkurt, a bright student with beautiful long hair who grew up near Kaiserslautern in Germany, stands in stark contrast to the women of the Islamic Community Penzberg (IGP). Selen is representative of the majority of Muslim women in Germany. Unlike most of the women of the IGP she can, of course, swim. As if it was the most natural thing in the world she says, “No one in my family ever put pressure on me to cover up and therefore I don’t”.
But does Selen really know what she is missing out on? “Every year our husbands give us presents of unusually designed headscarves. Our husbands will never get bored,” says Gönül Yerli joyfully.