What you need to know about calls to ban full-face veils in German classrooms

A fresh debate has been sparked over whether schools in Germany should allow pupils to wear the niqab, a facial veil worn by Muslims which leaves only the wearer's eyes visible.

What you need to know about calls to ban full-face veils in German classrooms
Archive photo shows two women wearing face veils in Hesse. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

There are calls to change state laws in Germany after a court ruled against an attempt by authorities in Hamburg to stop a 16-year-old schoolgirl from wearing a niqab during lessons.

Hamburg education officials had ordered the girl's mother to ensure that her daughter did not wear the veil at her vocational school, and reportedly imposed a €500 fine.

But an administrative court on Monday sided with the girl's mother.  

An appeal by the city against this decision was rejected by the Higher Administrative Court. The court said in a statement that there is no legal basis for the order against the mother.

According to the court, the student could claim the “unconditionally protected freedom of religion”. Interventions in this fundamental right would require a “sufficiently determined legal basis”. The Hamburg School Act does not currently provide for such a basis.

READ ALSO: German court rules against school niqab ban

Will there be a change in law?

There could be, at the state level. It's important to note that German education laws are made at the state rather than federal level, but there is a wider debate around the country about the role of full-face veils in the classroom.

Hamburg's education minister Ties Rabe, of the Social Democrats (SPD), said on Monday that he would seek to change education state laws in order to be able to implement the ban in the northern state.

He told broadcaster NDR: “At school, it is appropriate for teachers and students to have an open and free face, that is the only way school and teaching can function.

“That's why we will now swiftly amend the school law, so that this is also guaranteed in the future.”

Hamburg's state parliament is ruled by a coalition made up of the SPD and Greens.

On Monday, the Greens appeared to back the SPD's calls. The party’s Katharina Fegebank declared that the burqa and niqab were “symbols of oppression” for her. For a successful school education, she said, “good communication at eye level” was needed.

Fegebank called for changes in the school law.

Opposition parties the Christian Democrats (CDU), Free Democrats (FDP) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) have previously called for a ban on niqabs and burqas in classrooms. They slammed Hamburg's red-green coalition on not changing state laws earlier.

Meanwhile, the German Teachers' Association has called for a ban on face veils not only in schools. “I advocate a nationwide ban on the niqab in all educational institutions,” said association president Heinz-Peter Meidinger.

“This does not fit with the open-mindedness we want to cultivate in the classroom.”

READ ALSO: When Muslim women are allowed to wear headscarves in Germany and when not

What's happening in other states?

The ruling in Hamburg has prompted other states to consider changing laws.

Susanne Eisenmann the education minister in Baden-Württemberg, said Tuesday that the court decision makes it clear that a legal basis for a ban is needed for legal clarity.

“For this reason we want to adapt our school law quickly,” she told DPA.
“Freedom of religion also has its limits – and in our schools, in concrete terms, when teachers and pupils can literally no longer look each other in the face. We do not tolerate full veils in our schools.”

There's an ongoing situation in Hamburg's neighbouring northern state Schleswig-Holstein. The state parliament there failed to pass a ban on full-face veils in universities and colleges, following a Green party vote against it.

The Green party, however, is divided on the issue. Some members of the party back a ban on garments that completely cover a woman's face.

The debate about religious clothing has become especially heated in light of the record number of refugees, most from Muslim-majority countries, who arrived in Germany during the worldwide crisis three to four years ago.

The far-right AfD has seen its popularity soar since then, with calls for banning headscarves and minarets on mosques.

The topic of headscarves in school has also become heated across different German states in recent years.

READ ALSO: Eight things to know about Islam in Germany

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Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday

The mayor of Cologne has announced a two-year pilot project that will allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer on the Muslim day of rest each week.

Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday
The DITIP mosque in Cologne. Photo: dpa | Henning Kaiser

Mosques in the city of the banks of the Rhine will be allowed to call worshippers to prayer on Fridays for five minutes between midday and 3pm.

“Many residents of Cologne are Muslims. In my view it is a mark of respect to allow the muezzin’s call,” city mayor Henriette Reker wrote on Twitter.

In Muslim-majority countries, a muezzin calls worshippers to prayer five times a day to remind people that one of the daily prayers is about to take place.

Traditionally the muezzins would call out from the minaret of the mosque but these days the call is generally broadcast over loudspeakers.

Cologne’s pilot project would permit such broadcasts to coincide with the main weekly prayer, which takes place on a Friday afternoon.

Reker pointed out that Christian calls to prayer were already a central feature of a city famous for its medieval cathedral.

“Whoever arrives at Cologne central station is welcomed by the cathedral and the sound of its church bells,” she said.

Reker said that the call of a muezzin filling the skies alongside church bells “shows that diversity is both appreciated and enacted in Cologne”.

Mosques that are interested in taking part will have to conform to guidelines on sound volume that are set depending on where the building is situated. Local residents will also be informed beforehand.

The pilot project has come in for criticism from some quarters.

Bild journalist Daniel Kremer said that several of the mosques in Cologne were financed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “a man who opposes the liberal values of our democracy”, he said.

Kremer added that “it’s wrong to equate church bells with the call to prayer. The bells are a signal without words that also helps tell the time. But the muezzin calls out ‘Allah is great!’ and ‘I testify that there is no God but Allah.’ That is a big difference.”

Cologne is not the first city in North Rhine-Westphalia to allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer.

In a region with a large Turkish immigrant community, mosques in Gelsenkirchen and Düren have been broadcasting the religious call since as long ago as the 1990s.

SEE ALSO: Imams ‘made in Germany’: country’s first Islamic training college opens its doors