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Active in society with a headscarf -
Interview with Erika Theissen

Mrs Theissen, you once said that you would like to build a bridge between society and Muslims and to regard this as your contribution to society. What does your bridge actually look like? Where and how are you involved?

Erika Theissen: Even 20 years ago the shortcomings in the educational situation of Muslim girls were of great concern to me as a German teacher, so I began to campaign within a circle of Muslim women friends for an education centre to be set up. In 1996 we founded the Begegnungs- und Fortbildungszentrum muslimischer Frauen e.V. (BFmF e.V.) [Muslim Women's Meeting and Educational Centre], whose aims were encapsulated in its name. As Muslim women we wanted not only to play our part in a successful society by providing scope for intercultural meetings and dialogue, but also to use education to equip Muslim women to participate on equal terms, in order to tackle disadvantages and deficiencies in education. Over the course of time, for example, over 200 young women retrospectively gained their Hauptschule and Realschule school-leaving certificates, and around 10 percent of them have since completed the Abitur [university entrance qualification] and gone on to further study.
Today over 50 migrant Muslim women, some of them highly qualified, work in the BFmF e.V. With a great deal of personal and voluntary commitment, we have developed the small women's self-help group into a unique national model institution, which provides comprehensive and targeted support to help female migrants find their place in German society, both professionally and socially. For example, 15 percent of all the German certificates in Cologne were gained in our centre, specifically by wives and mothers.
Family education also plays a big role in the BFmF e.V. In the meantime, 26 female educationists from migrant backgrounds have been trained to run "Starke Eltern- starke Kinder" [Strong parents - strong children] courses in line with the concept for a non-violent upbringing designed by the German Child Protection Agency. Our family education service also runs around twenty of these parenting courses for migrant associations and mosque communities every year.
Another bridge is formed by our diverse range of advice services, which are increasingly consulted by regulatory services, advisory boards, authorities and the police for assistance with problematic cases. The BFmF e.V. has since become an important partner to various family centres in Cologne.
As Muslim women from 25 different countries of origin, we play an active role in society with our professional and cultural know-how. We work with many study groups at local, state and national level. For example, I have been a member of a study group at the integration summit and another one within the framework of the national integration programme, and we have supported the development of the Cologne integration concept in four study groups.
The establishment of the Meeting and Educational Centre, an exemplary institution developed on the basis of intercultural education, is my contribution to our society.

You have launched a project on asking questions. Open-ended questions as well as clichés are often associated with the subject of the headscarf. To what extent do you specifically address this area of Muslim life?

Erika Theissen: The subject of the headscarf is addressed at nearly all events, because this item of clothing has been made into a problem in German society. Many groups of international visitors, who come to our centre for talks via the Goethe Institute or the Federal Government, cannot understand the way the headscarf is handled in Germany. In England some policewomen wear a headscarf under their cap, and in America it is unthinkable that you would be unable to get a job because of an outward accessory like the headscarf.
For us, however, it is particularly important that our groups of German visitors can ask any questions at all. Many female academics from Muslim migrant backgrounds, who themselves wear a headscarf, work in our institution. When conversing with these self-assured women, some of whom are single parents leading self-determined lives as German citizens, it becomes clear to many visitors that their stereotypical image of the Muslim woman is untrue. It is only by visiting our large social centre, established and managed entirely by (Muslim) women, that most people realise that we Muslim women are making a great contribution to society, in spite of our headscarves.

Critics of the headscarf point out that it symbolises regress and the oppression of women. On the other hand, many Muslim women maintain that they would opt for this form of dress of their own choice and volition. You are a Muslim woman and wear a headscarf yourself. Who or what influenced you to do so?

Erika Theissen: I belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, to the Hanafi school of law, and this demands that the head be covered. The headscarf is part of the dress code of my religion, neither a symbol nor an expression of subservience or inferiority. As a professing Muslim I pray five times a day, I have done the Hajj (pilgrimage), I pay the poor tax and I fast for Ramadan. My religious convictions also mean that I am active on behalf of my fellow human beings and oppose social injustice. That is my religion. In a country where the religious freedom of every person is set down in constitutional law it should be enough to say, this is my doctrine, I hold to it and nobody is entitled to deprive me of this right.
On the other hand, of course, you should not criticise everything, this is part and parcel of our democracy, it has shaped me and I am a committed advocate of it. What's more, Islam has many different branches in the same way as Christianity. So there are of course also branches of Islam which do not stipulate the religious commands mentioned above.
What I find to be a problem in Germany is the way in which self-confessed critics of Islam and ex-Muslims are appointed as spokespersons and experts on Islam, and whose rejection of religious commandments is then stated to be progressive Islam. That would be like making the rejection of celibacy by evangelical pastors compulsory for Catholic priests as well, or stipulating that Christmas should fall on 6 January on the basis of assertions by Orthodox Christians.

How do you assess the relationship between active involvement in the life of society and the headscarf?

Erika Theissen: As an educationist I find it most alarming that in our society many Muslim girls must choose between career progression and religious life, because it is almost impossible to obtain a place on a training course or a job with a headscarf. I myself have received several invitations as a speaker or moderator, only to have them withdrawn because of the headscarf. It is inconceivable for a woman wearing a headscarf to be in a position of accountability or to pursue a profession in Germany. This is the experience of female teachers, educationists and social workers, as well as female doctors, lawyers, finance specialists etc. When it comes to unskilled workers and cleaners, on the other hand, even schools don't mind the headscarf.
If society is serious about supporting the progress of Muslim women towards emancipation and integration, and if one assumes that families want to use the headscarf to oppress their daughters and keep them from being independent, then they should be given the opportunity of employment and the emancipation from hierarchical structures that comes with it.

What are your hopes for the future?

Erika Theissen: I hope that our constitutional law, which explicitly forbids discrimination on the grounds of religious affiliation, is consistently applied to people of the Muslim faith as well. Questions about the interpretation of religious commands should be put to Christian theologians for the Christians, Jewish ones for the Jews and Muslim ones for the Muslims, rather than to self-appointed representatives. My religion is my anchor and guide in life. My hope is to be able to live out my religion in my home country of Germany without being ostracised.

The interview was conducted by Leila Donner-Üretmek. 27.04.2009

Personal details: Erika Theissen was born in Cologne, trained as a teacher and converted to Islam in 1987. She quali-fied as an intercultural educationist and has worked in various Muslim migrant associations. In 1996 she launched the Begegnungs- und Fortbildungszentrum muslimischer Frauen e.V. [Muslim Women's Meeting and Educational Centre] in Cologne and has since worked as a manager and di-rector. At present she is doing a doctorate in the field of intercultural education.

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