“So I made this new feminist friend, huh,” my friend Zandra tells me. “She is my age and she is so cool!”
Zandra is 29 and like all people who are under thirty, she thinks it matters what age you are. Like, really matters. Like, it has something to do with you, really, like getting old is this terrible choice people make and they should just say no, like she will, and remain 29 forever. Seriously, I don’t want to be a grumpy old woman about this, but I was no cooler ten years ago than I am now. I was pretty fucking uncool ten years ago, to be honest. I still, ten years ago, actually preferred pop music to proper music and found nightclubs a bit stressful. But somehow, because you get older, because time goes forward, literally goes forward, young people act like they’re being really generous for hanging out with you even though there’s the number 80 on your birth certificate. Someone should tell them that age ain’t nothing but a number! It’s a bit annoying to be honest.
“Oh, that’s nice,” I say. “You should have more feminist friends. They’re good for you.”
“She is so nice,” Zandra says, happily. “Totally nice and completely feminist. Rape, abortion you name it. Oh!”
Zandra suddenly looks kind of crestfallen.
“There’s just one thing she’s weird about.”
“Headscarf?” I say, nodding lots. I’ve been in Germany one million years now. I am ancient after all. I know what kind of things German feminists are weird about.
“Headscarf,” she says, nodding lots.
“Does she think it’s okay, the teacher ban?”
Zandra looks kind of embarrassed.
“I think if she had her way, they’d ban everyone from wearing it – even women who work in, like, headscarf shops and stuff.
German feminists and the headscarf. It’s weird, man. I actually think that a German feminist can be anti-headscarf and not actually be a total islamophobe. If anyone from the UK or the US felt the same way, you know, I’d strike them off my Christmas list. But if you struck every anti-headscarf German feminist off your Christmas card list (which doesn’t exist because you live in Germany and everyone here is too grown-up and sensible to send Christmas cards) you wouldn’t have many German feminist friends left. And also, the thing is, I really think the headscarf is seen differently in their heads than it is in ours.
The thing you have to understand is that their feelings about the headscarf are very clear. They are tangible – and they see the headscarf as tangible too. Very absolute. They see this headscarf – the wish some women have to not show their hair in public – as only sexist. ONLY sexist. Just oppression. It’s basic as fuck of them, but that is what they see. They see women in hijab as if they’re walking around with a sign on their foreheads saying “OPPRESSION IS GOOD”. This is what the headscarf is for German feminists. Like it is purely, 100% only a sexist symbol. This is why you will find, after you have lived here a while, that you will have German feminist friends who will be totally completely and absolutely normal on every other topic, but who want to ban the headscarf, or at the very least, find the ban for teachers okay. And you know what else? Not all of them will be grannies like me. Some of them will be pretty fucking young.
I can see why people think the headscarf is sexist, by the way. It’s only women who cover their hair, not men, so therefore, they say, the headscarf is fundamentally sexist. I don’t completely understand why other things which only women wear and not men – skirts, high heels, foundation – shouldn’t be banned too but there you go. Well, I do understand, really. High heels which are actually really fucking dangerous for your feet are as much of a symbol of oppression (if a headscarf is oppressive) as the headscarf. However, they are not seen as foreign. They’re not seen as imported oppression. This is why you have to search pretty fucking high and wide before you find a German feminist who wants to ban high heels.
The thing is, though. Women should be free to choose what they want to wear. Women in Iran and Saudi Arabia should be free to show their hair in public – and women in the West should be free to cover up. It’s actually pretty sexist that men are allowed to go swimming with their nipples showing. But this sexism wouldn’t make it okay for people to force women to reveal their nipples too. That’s not freedom, that’s not equality.
One thing I have never understood about the anti-headscarf stance is the whole religious symbol stuff. Of course, the headscarf is a symbol, and it’s a symbol connected to a religion, but it’s not a religious symbol in the way a cross is. There are lots of Muslim women who don’t wear hijab, just like there are lots of non-Muslim women who wear headscarves – the Queen and nuns, for example (the latter of which strangely ARE allowed to teach in German schools? Go figure.) The other thing I don’t understand is why it’s okay for kids to see women in headscarves cleaning the school after the bell rings for the end of the day – but not okay for them to be taught by them? There’s never actually been this ban of the headscarf in educational settings people think there has. What there has been though, is the German state doubling down on women it thinks are so oppressed that the only way to end this oppression is to ban them form teaching?
When I came to Germany, aged 20, I got used to a lot of things quickly. I stopped sending Christmas cards the second Christmas I spent out here – look, it’s a stupid tradition okay? But it’s taken me nearly twenty years to understand the German feminist position on the headscarf – and I am not sure if understand is the right word, really. But maybe it’s time for German feminists to do a bit of thinking too?