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Interview with Dr. Necla Kelek on the subject of the headscarf

The Muslim headscarf has been around in Germany for a few years. Many Muslim women emphasise their free will by choosing to wear the headscarf. Critics object to the headscarf, saying that it symbolises the oppression of Muslim women by Islam. Why in your view do a large number of Muslim women wear the headscarf? Where do you stand on statements that choosing to wear the headscarf is all about self-determination?

Dr. Necla Kelek: Your question is quite naturally based on the assumption that the headscarf is a religious symbol. It is however based not on the Koran, but only on tradition. According to the Koran, Mohammed wanted to protect his wives from harassment and advised them to cover their bosoms with a veil. The Islamic view is that people are unable to control their urges through reason, i.e. understanding, hence the recommendation that women veil themselves in front of men who cannot control themselves, so as not to sexually arouse them. So the headscarf has nothing to do with reverence for Allah, but with the Muslim culture of shame. In our society we now have laws that protect women from harassment by men. Our society demands that men exercise self-control and wants women to be able to appear in public on equal terms. There are many Muslim women who reject the headscarf as an archaic symbol of male dominance. If Muslim women wear the headscarf of their own free will, however, then that is also their right. But they must be clear about the fact that, in doing so, they are sending out a quite specific message. They are saying, I am a respectable woman, my charms belong to my husband alone, I submit to him and have no wish to be bothered in any way. It is also a political message to German society. The headscarf has now become a political symbol, that of a Muslim identity which separates itself from the majority community out of religious, traditional, patriarchal motives. When I see the veiled young import brides walking behind their veiled mothers-in-law in Berlin-Wedding, Cologne or Paderborn, I doubt that they have chosen this veiled life of their own free will.

Young Muslim women can also now be seen to be covering their hair. They often do so in their own "fashionable" way. Are they searching for an identity in this?

Dr. Necla Kelek: A wide variety of options can be observed. There is the veil worn by female students as a political statement (Palestinian scarf) or, in contrast to this, the Hermès turban combined for example with tight low-slung trousers, presumably worn by the young woman wishing to be provocative, an "Islam bitch". Hypothetically speaking, change is happening. People are no longer asking "What should I believe?", but "How should I believe?". As it is no longer certain what can be believed, since faith is less and less consistent with experienced reality, outward signs of separateness and identification become all the more important. Islam is becoming a style statement. And in many respects: as strict separation from the western world, as justification for the retreat into a counter-society on the one hand and, on the other, as an aggressive movement with the overriding aim of reinforcing the otherness and individual identity of young Muslims. These two elements of Islam-as-a-fad have one thing in common: the attempt to compensate with overly conservative or provocative dress, because there is no real sense of being sustained by religion. These young women stand out and like to be paraded as examples that the problem will solve itself. But what about those in the home, behind their mothers-in-law, their own mothers, hidden under headscarves, whose identity is not to exist in public - the fate of these women goes unheeded. But it should interest us. When we talk about the headscarf, they are precisely the ones we should talk about.

From what age do you consider a girl or a young woman sufficiently mature, from a sociological point of view, to make her own decision with regard to the headscarf?

Dr. Necla Kelek: Basic constitutional law is clear on this. In Germany one becomes of age in religious matters from the age of 14. This is why I believe the headscarf has no place in primary schools. The headscarf makes girls sexual beings well before puberty, their "right to a childhood" is taken away from them. That cannot be within the spirit of our society, which needs citizens who are equal before the law, self-assured and independent. Whoever forces little girls to wear the headscarf is abusing religious freedom.

The interview was conducted by Leila Donner-Üretmek. 14.04.2009

Personal details: Necla Kelek was born in Istanbul, came to Germany at the age of ten, studied political economics and sociology in Hamburg and Greifswald, and did her doctorate on the subject of "Islam im Alltag" [Islam in everyday life]. She lives and works as a freelance author and journalist in Hamburg and Berlin and writes about matters such as parallel societies, Islam, integration and Turkey. She was a member in the first part of the German Islam Conference.

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