Headscarf debate

The headscarf debate relates to the question of whether the wearing of head-covering (especially headscarves), as a sign of a particular interpretation of Islam, should be permitted or not in certain public areas. This applies in particular to those involved in government departments or state-run educational establishments. There is conflict between freedom of religion and the religious neutrality of the state.

Many Muslims take their lead from the Qur’an (Suras 24:31 and 33:59) and from the hadith, in which the prophet Mohammad requires a female Muslim to cover her whole body with the exception of her hands and face, as a command for all Muslim women to cover themselves from the head down.

In the Suras mentioned above the covering is an undefined piece of clothing which women wear on the upper part of the body ‘to identify them as believers and to protect them from harassment.’ It has a protective function and should curtail sexual advances.

There is no clear instance regarding this subject as there is no such thing as, for example, a hierarchical church body. Islamic scholars (Muftis) can be consulted in such matters but their recommendations are based on their own individual opinions and are not binding. Due to this, there are great differences of opinion regarding the carrying out of religious duties.

The Qur’an, however, states clearly that there should be no compulsion in religious matters (Sura 2:256). This means that every Muslim woman has the right to decide whether she sees the wearing of a headscarf as a religious duty or not. External compulsion, therefore, is incorrect but still it takes place even, in some cases, by the state.

Besides religion and politics; tradition, cultural and ethnical motives also play a role. Practicing Muslims point out that the wearing of headscarves is a religious obligation and not an expression of political attitude. They claim, therefore, that they are entitled to practice their religion.

The subject of wearing a headscarf has recently become a matter for debate especially in France and Germany after, among other things, Muslim women sought to have the wearing of headscarves by civil servants legalized. Due to the divergent religious practices between different groups, the wearing of headscarves has come to be perceived as specifically ‘Muslim’ or interpreted as a political statement. The headscarf is seen in a European-Christian culture group as a sign of the oppression of Muslim women and as reinforcement of the fundamentalist-Muslim group.

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