Everyone has an opinion on the burqa – even if one doesn’t know anything about Islam, religion or the provisions of constitutional law relating to religion. But a debate in which everyone proposes banning what he or she personally dislikes does not get us anywhere. As if the fight against religious fundamentalism and terrorism could be won by rules on what people wear! Or, even more absurd, by a requirement to shower naked at the gym or by an obligation to shake hands. All ideas that have recently been openly discussed.
Of course the burqa and niqab are an expression of a patriarchal, misogynistic social order. However, the debate on introducing a ban is not a real discussion at all. It seeks to condemn Islam and Muslims by imposing requirements and restrictions on them instead of seeking to reflect on positive measures to promote integration. One result of these debates is the result of the recent parliamentary election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the right-wing populist and anti-Islamic AfD received more votes than the CDU. Whereby it was the CDU itself which made the right-wing populists’ demands socially acceptable by debating a “burqa ban.” When voters then had the choice, they voted for the original right-wing populists, the AfD, and not their imitators in the CDU. And finally, the pictures from Nice have brought home to us that, while men must not be allowed to dictate what women wear on religious grounds, they must equally not be allowed to force women to undress or be permitted to give them a ticket for being “wrongly dressed.” That is the opposite of emancipatory policy.
We must also continue to campaign against misogynistic attitudes in Islam, without mincing our words. After all, we never went easy on reactionary representatives of the Catholic Church, such as Cardinal Meisner and Archbishop Dyba, when they sought to stir up public opinion against women’s right to self-determination or against homosexuals.
One element of an honest debate is sticking to the facts: the majority of Muslims do not regard it as a religious requirement to wear such a concealing form of veil as the burqa. Nonetheless, that does not justify a ban. Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court is unequivocal in this regard: “The state is not permitted, however, to judge such religious beliefs held by its citizens, let alone to describe them as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is particularly the case if divergent views on the subject are represented within a religion.” (Federal Constitutional Court Decisions, 1 BvR 471/10 – marginal note 86). In political terms, the populist demand for a burqa ban is yet another instance of women being misused for politics of symbolism. We cannot ban everything we dislike. Bans on full-face veils must have legitimate aims, such as determining a person’s identity or ensuring road safety, and must be necessary as an appropriate means. Bans are only permissible so long as and to the extent that they are genuinely necessary to achieve these aims.
If we want to support these women in integration policy and feminist terms, we must provide support for advisory services which educate women about their rights and provide them with protection if they are subject to pressure or threats regarding their freedom on clothing issues or in matters of sexual self-determination. If we impose an unconstitutional ban on women leaving their homes while fully veiled, we are condemning them to a housebound existence, which would leave them completely cut off from the outside world. That would not constitute an improvement in women’s rights, and the consequences for integration would be disastrous.
Volker Beck is spokesman on migration policy for the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group in the German Bundestag