What you need to know about calls to ban full-face veils in German classrooms

A fresh debate has been sparked over whether schools in Germany should allow pupils to wear the niqab, a facial veil worn by Muslims which leaves only the wearer's eyes visible.

What you need to know about calls to ban full-face veils in German classrooms
Archive photo shows two women wearing face veils in Hesse. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

There are calls to change state laws in Germany after a court ruled against an attempt by authorities in Hamburg to stop a 16-year-old schoolgirl from wearing a niqab during lessons.

Hamburg education officials had ordered the girl's mother to ensure that her daughter did not wear the veil at her vocational school, and reportedly imposed a €500 fine.

But an administrative court on Monday sided with the girl's mother.  

An appeal by the city against this decision was rejected by the Higher Administrative Court. The court said in a statement that there is no legal basis for the order against the mother.

According to the court, the student could claim the “unconditionally protected freedom of religion”. Interventions in this fundamental right would require a “sufficiently determined legal basis”. The Hamburg School Act does not currently provide for such a basis.

READ ALSO: German court rules against school niqab ban

Will there be a change in law?

There could be, at the state level. It's important to note that German education laws are made at the state rather than federal level, but there is a wider debate around the country about the role of full-face veils in the classroom.

Hamburg's education minister Ties Rabe, of the Social Democrats (SPD), said on Monday that he would seek to change education state laws in order to be able to implement the ban in the northern state.

He told broadcaster NDR: “At school, it is appropriate for teachers and students to have an open and free face, that is the only way school and teaching can function.

“That's why we will now swiftly amend the school law, so that this is also guaranteed in the future.”

Hamburg's state parliament is ruled by a coalition made up of the SPD and Greens.

On Monday, the Greens appeared to back the SPD's calls. The party’s Katharina Fegebank declared that the burqa and niqab were “symbols of oppression” for her. For a successful school education, she said, “good communication at eye level” was needed.

Fegebank called for changes in the school law.

Opposition parties the Christian Democrats (CDU), Free Democrats (FDP) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) have previously called for a ban on niqabs and burqas in classrooms. They slammed Hamburg's red-green coalition on not changing state laws earlier.

Meanwhile, the German Teachers' Association has called for a ban on face veils not only in schools. “I advocate a nationwide ban on the niqab in all educational institutions,” said association president Heinz-Peter Meidinger.

“This does not fit with the open-mindedness we want to cultivate in the classroom.”

READ ALSO: When Muslim women are allowed to wear headscarves in Germany and when not

What's happening in other states?

The ruling in Hamburg has prompted other states to consider changing laws.

Susanne Eisenmann the education minister in Baden-Württemberg, said Tuesday that the court decision makes it clear that a legal basis for a ban is needed for legal clarity.

“For this reason we want to adapt our school law quickly,” she told DPA.
“Freedom of religion also has its limits – and in our schools, in concrete terms, when teachers and pupils can literally no longer look each other in the face. We do not tolerate full veils in our schools.”

There's an ongoing situation in Hamburg's neighbouring northern state Schleswig-Holstein. The state parliament there failed to pass a ban on full-face veils in universities and colleges, following a Green party vote against it.

The Green party, however, is divided on the issue. Some members of the party back a ban on garments that completely cover a woman's face.

The debate about religious clothing has become especially heated in light of the record number of refugees, most from Muslim-majority countries, who arrived in Germany during the worldwide crisis three to four years ago.

The far-right AfD has seen its popularity soar since then, with calls for banning headscarves and minarets on mosques.

The topic of headscarves in school has also become heated across different German states in recent years.

READ ALSO: Eight things to know about Islam in Germany

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.