Fighting for the welfare of children or “islamophobia”?

Fighting for the welfare of children or 'islamophobia'?

Schoolgirl with headscarf © Wolfram Kastl

There is much to be said against covering little girls with the Islamic veil. The Austrian parliament has now reaffirmed this with a law. Conservative Islam representatives speak of discrimination.

Austria's coalition government has once again won the day with its strict line against traditionalist Islam. With the votes of the conservative Austrian People's Party (oVP) and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPo), the Viennese parliament passed a headscarf ban in elementary schools on Wednesday evening.

The law prohibits, on penalty of a fine, "the wearing of clothing of an ideological or religious nature that involves the covering of the head". According to the government, this applies above all to the Islamic hijab, because it covers the entire hair on the head, unlike the Jewish kippah, for example.

Opposition voted almost unanimously against headscarf ban

The decision was a "signal against political Islam" and freed Muslim girls from "submission" to its strict separation of the sexes, the oVP and FPo said. The opposition voted almost unanimously against the draft of the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (oVP), complaining that it was not concerned with the welfare of children, but mainly with headlines.

Conversely, supporters of the law wonder whether the opposition is not only concerned with the reflexive protection of highly questionable practices of an ultra-conservative Islam, which must be protected from a supposed "xenophobia".

The Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGo) announced on Thursday that it would file a complaint with the Constitutional Court. It stresses the right to religious freedom and speaks of discrimination against young Muslim women, even a "black day for democracy".

Dispute between rigid and enlightened Islam

However, the IGGo can hardly refer to the two authoritative Islamic sources in its fight for a child's headscarf. For neither the Koran nor the Prophet's traditions prescribe the veiling of little girls before puberty – whatever sexual charms they should be covering up? – quite apart from the fact that many Muslim theologians do not consider the veil a religious obligation anyway. Apparently, the upcoming dispute is once again about the test of power between organized Islam with its rigid understanding of the Koran and the cultural rules of an enlightened Western state.

Objectively, the debate is about the question, which can only be clarified in each individual case, of whether eight- or ten-year-old schoolgirls voluntarily decide to wear headscarves or are urged to do so by their parents, which in case of doubt is probably more likely to be the case.

But even from the point of view of liberal Muslims like the women's rights activist Seyran Ates, this does not fall under the parents' right to educate their children. The "piece of cloth on the head" demands a certain behavior from the girls, she says. They should be "well-behaved and reserved, not have too close contact with boys, do not run and romp". But this is what children should be allowed to do. "If parents want to take this freedom away from their daughters, then the state must do something about it."

Restrained discussion about hijab ban in Germany

Critics such as the organization Terre des Femmes have observed with concern an increasing trend among conservative Muslim migrants in Europe to put the hijab on their daughters as children, thus separating them from the "infidel" majority society. Sometimes it already appears in daycare centers. For years, former feminist Alice Schwarzer has warned against the headscarf as a "flag of political Islam," for which the separation of the sexes is central. According to this metaphor, it could probably be added: The younger the wearer, the more visibly this flag flies.

But there are also quite non-political arguments against headscarves for elementary school girls. The vice president of the Federal Association of Pediatricians and Adolescents, Sigrid Peter, explained that the children affected receive too little vitamin D, which endangers their healthy growth.

In Germany, the discussion about a hijab ban for children is rather restrained. For example, the NRW state government made a push for a law a year ago, without any tangible result. In Berlin, there was a ban initiative on the part of the AfD at the beginning of May. CDU and FDP have signaled approval. The governing parties SPD, Left and Greens, on the other hand, spoke of "Islamophobia".

By Christoph Schmidt

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