Throughout Europe, over the past decade, there has been a loud - and at times openly xenophobic - debate about whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear a headscarf while on duty in a government job. Various types of bans have been enacted in several countries, including France, Germany, and Turkey.
Some feminists seek these bans in the name of helping Muslim women, whom they often see as uniformly oppressed. Anti-immigration politicians seek these policies because they see people who refuse to "fit in" as a threat to western society. But these arguments are detrimental both to women's rights and to peaceful integration, and the women most likely to be affected are rarely consulted.
"I suddenly felt like a stranger in Germany," one elementary school teacher said, describing her reaction to a ban in her state. "I will never forget that."
She was one of many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Germany, where 8 of 16 federal states have these bans for teachers (in two states the ban also covers other civil servants). Some of these laws are openly discriminatory, banning religious symbols, but excluding symbols of "Christian heritage." Other German bans appear to be neutral, but almost exclusively affect Muslim women.
To be sure, some women and girls are coerced into wearing the headscarf in the name of Islam, just as some are coerced into wearing long skirts, wigs, or other clothing, in the name of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. The state is obligated to help its citizens avoid coercion. However, our experience and research tell us that oppression cannot be uprooted by a state itself coercing the victims, but rather through education, access to justice and economic opportunity. Women's rights are about autonomy. And real autonomy means freedom to make choices whether others like these or not.
Some supporters of these bans maintain that wearing a headscarf is inherently demeaning. They contend that a headscarf-wearing teacher is unable to promote gender equality and freedom of choice among her students. But these well-meaning arguments run counter to the very tenet of gender equality: women's ability to make decisions about their lives without interference from the state or others.
Indeed, our research in Germany shows that these laws do nothing to support the wearers' autonomy. All of the women we spoke to told us they had freely chosen to wear it. But the bans do them harm, leaving them unable to work in the jobs they had chosen, and causing them to lose financial independence.
The argument to ban the headscarf in the name of "cultural integration," is at times expressed as open hostility toward non-white, or non-Judeo-Christian, immigrants. A less offensive variant is based on deep concern for the rapidly changing cultural landscape in Europe and an attempt to address the very real problems these changes are generating.
But banning the headscarf is the worst possible policy response to the need to bring people into mainstream society. Our research showed that the ban serves to exclude, rather than include. Many women we talked to felt alienated by the bans, even though some had lived in Germany for decades or even their entire lives. Some left their home state or left Germany altogether, some took prolonged leaves, and some highly trained teachers left the profession. "They have now a promotional program for migrant women to study and become a teacher," one woman said. "Here I am, take me!"
The notion that a teacher wearing a headscarf cannot be a good example for the girls in her class is very far from my personal experience. About half the children in my high school in Tilburg, in the Netherlands, were Moroccan or Turkish. One of my teachers wore a headscarf, as did some of the girls. This teacher always explained that making one's own choices based on arguments and beliefs is essential. She made her choice regarding the headscarf and she urged the girls in class to do the same. I came away with a commitment to women's human rights and a sense of dignity that is part of who I am.
Gender equality and peaceful integration should be prime objectives for anyone concerned with public policy. These objectives are not met by excluding women who make a choice to cover their hair.