The Headscarf Issue

By Anna Schultz

Illustration by Manya Tam

The controversy over the Muslim headscarf in Western European schools presents a complex issue. Incorporating aspects of colonialism, immigration policies, gender, race, and religious differences, it is difficult to understand without discussing each of these layers. Biases can stem from racism, sexism, naiveté, and a multitude of other factors. A single article could not fully address all of these issues, but this article discusses some important aspects of colonialism and immigration policies as they apply to the headscarf debate in public schools.   

The colonial era is an important period in this discussion because it was one of the earliest interactions between Muslim women and male colonists. European colonialism declared the complete inferiority of civilizations with different cultural practices and religious beliefs. During the colonial era, many colonists engaged in the de-veiling of Muslim women, one of the earlier examples of aggressive negative behavior towards the headscarf.[1]

Another important time frame in the European-Muslim development is the period after World War II. It was then that the recruitment of guest workers from post-colonial states led to a significant increase in the immigration of Muslims to Western Europe. As a result, Western Europeans countries more publicly defined their policies towards guest workers and immigrants. For instance, while Britain and the Netherlands attempted some multicultural policies, France and Germany leaned closer to assimilationist policies. These practices were subsequently influential in the headscarf policies of recent years.    

Although tensions and violence have been present in varying degrees between Muslims and Europeans, they have escalated significantly in recent years. Far-right opinions that used to be considered radical have shifted to more mainstream opinion.[2] Animosity towards Islam has increased partially because of a perception that Islam poses a threat to Western societies.[3] Politician Iqbal Zafar breaks down threat perceptions into three categories: cultural threats, political threats, and security threats. Cultural threats signify a belief that Islam is its own culture and that Islamic culture cannot coexist with European values. Political threats generally refer to Islam’s complicated relationship with women. Security threats signify that Muslims are a safety threat. Terrorist attacks have increased the perception of Islam as a security threat.[4] Western European countries have different legislative policies surrounding the headscarf in schools that generally correlate with their integration/assimilation policies towards Muslims and other immigrants. Since the 2004/2005 school year France has enforced a ban on all ostentatious religious symbols, including the headscarf, in public schools.[5] Headscarf laws in schools are decided at the state level in Germany; at least half of the 16 German states have a ban on teachers wearing headscarves.[6] This past summer, the Netherlands banned women from wearing the full-face veil in public buildings, including in schools.[7] In Britain, schools are allowed to make their own dress codes and therefore headscarf policies are decided by each school, but there has been a push for a national ban.[8] The discussion of headscarves in schools is popular and constantly developing throughout most Western European countries. Many of the arguments are regionally specific and stem from deeply rooted historical tensions among other issues.

France was the first country to introduce a ban on ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. French secularism is meant to keep religion out of the public sphere,[9] making the headscarf controversial. Supporters of the French headscarf ban often argue that it enforces secularism by providing a neutral education.[10] Despite majority support for the ban, the opposition has argued that removing religious presence from schools encourages ignorance and discrimination. Many believe that schools should reflect the racial, religious, and cultural makeup of society; by removing religious symbols from the public sphere, intolerance is being rewarded.[11]

The German national government generally avoids involvement in the headscarf debate in schools, leaving those decisions to its states. Germany claims to be neutral in terms of religious affairs, but often encourages cultural assimilation. German ban supporters typically argue that it does not fit in with German cultural values or that it interferes with state neutrality.[12] The opposition mainly argues that Islam is a religion not a culture, and its visual presence in public and within schools does not change that. The popular ban on teachers wearing the headscarf is arguably Germany’s attempt to remain neutral, not necessarily because of a perceived safety threat.

The Netherlands, like Germany, values state neutrality. Unlike Germany, it follows a more multicultural model. The Netherlands and Germany argue support for the headscarf ban in many similar ways, through the belief that it interferes with state neutrality and gender equality. In the Netherlands, multicultural policies make it impossible to argue that the headscarf should be banned for its rejection of Western culture because the state claims to value cultural differences. Although the Netherlands saw majority support for the headscarf ban, the margin was lower than both France and Germany.[13] In the Netherlands, people often argue that the ban denies one’s right to make independent decisions. It assumes that woman, particularly young girls, are incapable of having informed religious beliefs, and are dangerously susceptible to outside influence.

Britain’s argument for the headscarf ban in schools differentiated itself from other countries. The full-face veil was seen by many as a refusal to integrate because it supposedly halts human interactions.[14] Schools in Britain are allowed to make their own dress codes, and therefore the headscarf issue in schools varies. The argument for the headscarf ban in schools is often seen as elitist and unwanted. Schools should be a place of exploration and cultural education. To deny girls the right to wear the headscarf in school is to deny their right to make rational decisions, a concept that is held to a high standard in Britain.

France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Britain have varying headscarf debates that stem from their modern interactions with Islam, and unique histories. Despite predominantly bipartisan support, all countries have experienced a backlash, mostly from the female students whose lives have been directly affected by headscarf legislation.[15]

Germany and France made little attempts at integrating their societies. Germany’s assimilationist model forces cultural homogeneity, or at least the appearance of it. Erasing culture has been unsuccessful and damaging as the rise of terrorism has suggested. France’s assimilationist model allows easy access to citizenship but does not encourage acceptance.[16] Britain and the Netherlands attempted multiculturalism by exposure, but did not encourage enough education and interaction between groups.[17] Multiculturalism cannot succeed when it is solely coming from the state and is not accepted by the people.

The headscarf debate is a culmination of many issues like gendered, racial, religious, and cultural differences. The headscarf has deep, historical roots and, although it is not required, holds value to many women and girls. Men who force their family members to wear the headscarf are a problem, but law enforcement “de-veiling” women is a problem as well. This article is not meant to produce a clear answer or solution to the issues presented. The women and girls who are directly affected by headscarf legislation should have a platform to be included in the making of these important decisions.

[1]Rita Chin, The Crisis of Multiculturalism (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[2]Beverly Weber, “‘WE MUST TALK ABOUT COLOGNE’: Race, Gender, and Reconfigurations of ‘Europe,’ German Politics and Society Journal, 34, no. 4 (2016): 68-86, accessed October 2018, EBSCOhost, doi:10.3167/gps.2016.340405.

[3]Iqbal Zafar, “Islamophobia Or Islamophobias: Towards Developing A Process Model,” Islamic Studies, 49, no. 1 (2010): 81-101, accessed October 2018,

[4]Iqbal Zafar, “Islamophobia Or Islamophobias: Towards Developing A Process Model”

[5]Caitlin Killian, “From a Community of Believers to an Islam of the Heart: ‘Conspicuous’ Symbols, Muslim Practices, and the Privatization of Religion in France,” Sociology of Religion, 68, no.3 (2007): 305-320, accessed October 2018, EBSCOhost, live.

[6]“The Islamic Veil across Europe,” BBC online, May 31 2018. europe-13038095.

[7]“The Islamic Veil across Europe”

[8]“The Islamic Veil across Europe

[9]Adriana Piatti-Crocker, Laman Tasch, “Veil Bans in Western Europe: Interpreting Policy Diffusion,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 16, no. 2 (2015): 15-29, accessed October 2018, ProQuest,

[10]Adriana Piatti-Crocker, Laman Tasch, “Veil Bans in Western Europe: Interpreting Policy Diffusion”

[11]Joan W Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[12]Birgit Saur, “Headscarf Regimes in Europe: Diversity Policies at the Intersection of Gender, Culture and Religion,” Comparative European Politics, 7(1), (2009): 75-94, accessed November 2018 doi: !16.

[13]Jolanda van der Noll, “Public Support for a Ban on Headscarves: A Cross-National Perspective,” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 4, no. 2 (2010): 192-204, accessed November 2018, ProQuest,

[14]Rita Chin, The Crisis of Multiculturalism (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2017), 220.

[15]Joan W Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[16]Sawitri Saharso, “Headscarves: A Comparison of Public Thought and Public Policy in Germany and the Netherlands,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 10(4), 513-530, accessed October 2018, doi:

[17]Rita Chin, The Crisis of Multiculturalism (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2017).



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