Betül Ulusoy has been through a rollercoaster ten days. After being accepted for a traineeship with her local state authority, she was told they were reconsidering their decision and then finally told on Tuesday that she could indeed take up the place.
At the centre of the decision was the fact that as a devout Muslim she wears a headscarf.
The 26-year-old had applied for a position as a junior lawyer with the borough authorities. Last Monday the town hall told her that her application had been successful.
But when she arrived at the town hall the following day to sign her contract, her soon-to-be employers saw her headscarf and promptly announced they would have to review their decision.
The case stirred an intense media debate, as Germany searched its soul on the various issues Ulusoy’s case touches on – Islamophobia, freedom of expression and the separation between church and state.
The case has been particularly magnified because it took place in Neukölln, Berlin’s so-called ‘problem borough,’ a district where roughly every third inhabitant is of an immigrant background.
Neukölln has become a touchstone for debates about integration and religious freedom.
While this might at first glance appear to be a case of Islamophobia in the workplace, the case is more complex.
In Berlin the Neutralitätsgesetz, or neutrality law, states that anyone who works for the city authorities can show no outward sign of religiosity. That means no cross, no kippa, no headscarf.
But the same law also states that nobody can be discriminated against based upon their religious beliefs.
Ulusoy herself makes no attempt to deny that the headscarf she wears is an expression of her religion.
Speaking to Die Welt, she said that the headscarf brought her closer to God and was a sign that inner values are more important than what one sees on the outside.
But she said that wearing the headscarf forms part of her freedom of expression and that she herself saw it as a form of emancipation.
“The law states clearly that I am not to be discriminated against,” she said. “I am in my period of training and a ban [on wearing a headscarf] means in essence a ban from working.”
The debate about where women are allowed to wear headscarves is nothing new. Indeed in March the constitutional court – Germany’s highest chamber – declared that it was unconstitutional to completely ban headscarves in the work place.
While that ruling related to schools in Baden-Württemberg, it set a precedent for the whole of Germany.
Speaking to RBB on Monday, Die Linke (the left party) spokesman Hakan Tas said that the Neukölln authorities would be contravening this ruling by rejecting Ulusoy’s application.
“Nobody can be shut out,” he said.
But not everyone agreed.
Robbin Juhnke, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) borough council member told RBB “the neutrality law is clearly the higher law. She can wear her headscarf in the privacy of her own home.”
An exception for traineeships
Finally on Tuesday the town hall came to a decision.
Neukölln’s mayor, Franziska Giffey of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), announced that “If Ms Ulusoy so wishes, she can begin to work here on July 30.”
Ulusoy will now become the first person who wears a headscarf on religious grounds to take up a position with the Neukölln administration.
But the exception that has been made for her does not necessarily have wider implications.
The neutrality law itself contains exceptions for traineeships. But it is clear that any state employee who interacts with the public as a representative of the city must do so without displaying any signs of religiosity.
It is therefore not certain whether Ulusoy would later be given a full-time position with the borough administration.
“The state needs to remain neutral,” Die Welt reported Giffey as saying. “And when civil servants carry out official tasks they are prohibited from wearing religious symbols.”
Whether the constitutional court will rule that the Neutralitätsgesetz is in contravention of constitutional rights will have to wait until another day.