Headscarves: A Comparison of Public Thought and Public Policy in Germany and the Netherlands
The Islamic headscarf has been a subject of public concern and public debate in many European countries. What makes the headscarf so controversial? Demands to wear an Islamic headscarf in public institutions typically raise questions about neutrality. In order to secure for all citizens an equal right to form and express their personal beliefs, the state should not identify with any particular ideology. Neutrality is hence a precondition for religious and cultural diversity. The wearing of headscarves in public institutions, and in particular religious headgear worn by public officers, may endanger this neutrality. The question then becomes what should come first: public neutrality or the right to religious freedom of the woman concerned? A second series of questions concerns gender equality. The headscarf is considered by
some as a sign of women’s subordination within Islam and hence as contravening the principle of gender equality that public institutions are supposed to subscribe. Yet, does this warrant a ban on headscarves? A third theme concerns the headscarf as an (ostentatious) sign of an Islam that is manifesting itself politically. Inspired by geopolitical and national developments, the wearing of a headscarf is for many young Muslim women not merely a religious act, but an act of cultural defiance and increasing politisation. The religious community may also pressure individual female members to wear headscarves. A ban on headscarves in the classroom is thus occasionally justified as a measure to protect young women from liberal Islamic homes against the pressures of their more stringent fellow believers. Yet restricting the right to wear a headscarf for the sake of the freedom of some inevitably restricts the freedom of others. In short, the Islamic headscarf poses fundamental questions about the values and principles on which the liberal democratic state is built.