Germany, like France, questions place of Islamic Veils in its society

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The German interior minister said that Muslim women should not wear coverings over their face in places where identification is necessary, such as in schools and at airport security. By Reuters on Publish Date August 19, 2016. Photo by Kay Nietfeld/European Pressphoto Agency. 


Europe’s battle over public attire for Muslim women moved on Friday from the outcry over banning “burkinis” in France to a strong call from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing conservative bloc for a ban in Germany on face veils in schools and universities and while driving.

The German proposal, announced by the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, was clearly driven by an intensifying political season and a surge in support for the far right since Germany accepted more than a million migrants last year. There has been mounting public anxiety over integrating the newcomers, who are mostly from Muslim countries, particularly after a series of terrorist assaults and a gun rampage last month.

The German plan arrives on the heels of a heated debate in France over the burkini — a full-body swimsuit with a head covering — since a handful of cities joined the mayor of the French Riviera town of Cannes in banning the garment from city beaches.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France supported the move, calling the swimsuit a sign of the enslavement of women.

In Germany, there have been only isolated disputes over the burkini, and the reaction to the controversy in neighboring France might best be summed up by the comment on Mr. Valls’s statement in the business newspaper Handelsblatt: “Does the man really have no other problems?”

Yet the proposals now being floated in Germany around restricting the burqa make it clear that France is not the only European country grappling with whether some Islamic coverings amount to a barrier to the full participation of women in Western society.

Ms. Merkel had sent a signal about the partial ban on face veils on Thursday, when she told a group of provincial newspapers that “from my standpoint, a fully veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany.”

Mr. de Maizière said the same day that “the burqa doesn’t fit with our country and does not correspond to our understanding of the role of women.”

Mr. de Maizière and Ms. Merkel stopped short of calling for an outright ban on the burqa, but the proposal put forward on Friday tiptoes along a path that the French traveled down with a 2010 law that barred any covering that hides the face.

The French, too, put forward the law ostensibly on the grounds of public safety. Yet they have since found that defining a face covering and enforcing the law are challenging, at best. As of the spring of 2015, it had resulted in about 1,000 fines, but many of them were for repeat offenders.

Many Muslims in France criticize the law as further marginalizing Muslim women, effectively forcing them to stay home, rather than easing their integration.

Germany’s system of government, carefully constructed after the Nazi era to prevent the accumulation of state powers, means the authorities interfere less than officials in neighboring France, where the preservation of secularism is a long-established norm.

The German plan would not ban shawls or abayas that cover the body and are often worn with a hijab, a head scarf that does not cover the face, which German officials acknowledge would not win approval from the country’s constitutional court.

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It would ban full face veils in schools and colleges, and while driving, appearing before courts or at public registry offices, or when going through passport control. Women who want to wear face veils in public should not teach or become civil servants, Mr. de Maizière said in announcing the plan on morning television.

“We want to make it a legal requirement to show your face in places where that is necessary for the cohesion of our society,” he said.

He was flanked by the conservative leaders of two states with elections next month: Lorenz Caffier of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Frank Henkel of the city-state of Berlin. Both men are running on strong law-and-order platforms and had called for a ban on veils.

“The burqa does not belong to Germany,” Mr. Caffier said this week, and Mr. Henkel called the covering “a cloth cage.”

Calls by conservatives for at least a partial ban on face coverings have swelled as the governing bloc — Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and a sister party in Bavaria — has lost ground to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. The far-right party has called for a ban on veils and even on minarets on mosques, and it views Islam as incompatible with the German Constitution.

One of the leaders of Alternative for Germany, Jörg Meuthen, told the German news agency DPA on Friday that the conservatives’ proposal was an attempt to thwart the rise of the far right.

He conceded that the burqa was rarely seen in Germany, but he said his party’s call for a ban was an attempt to pre-emptively address the matter before it became a wider issue.

 

New York Times

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