Prof. Dr. Sabine Berghahn (Visiting Professor of Law, Politics, and Gender, Berlin School of Economics and Law; Germany)

02.10.2010 - Interview conducted by Elizabeth Hurst

Q1.You are a researcher for women’s rights in Germany. You have written several works about the subject such as ‘Der Stoff aus dem Konflikte sind’ in which you analyze the headscarf situation in the German speaking countries. Do you think that the EU should make a common agreement on the issue?

Yes, in the form of a judgment from the European court of justice, because in other ways I cannot see how this could work. The EU does not have the competencies to say you must regulate this in all the countries in the same way, that is not possible.

Q2. How far off do you think that is considering the differences between the countries?

The differences between the countries was the reason why the European Court of Human Rights always left this broad margin of appreciation. Now we have seen in the light of the anti-discrimination laws that that are not compatible because states like France and Turkey cling to their traditional attitudes of understanding secularism as this strict separation between private and public and so on. Therefore something must be changed in this normative understanding of religious rights and religious manifestation.

Q3. Talking about France and the ban of the headscarf, a lot of people seem to justify this as initiatives for national integration and of having people promote a sense of national identity. Do you think that these bans help promote those kinds of initiatives, or do they merely result in discrimination against Muslims and radicalization of Islam within Muslim communities in Europe?

Yes, the latter is right as it does not help integration. If you come into a country and they reject you for such reasons like covering, or a different outer appearance in any way, one is not willing to integrate and to adapt to the new beliefs and culture of this country. So then you will be radicalized, will protest, and will feel discriminated against. All these consequences are foreseeable.

Q4. Can you imagine Germany implementing a similar law as France in regards to the headscarf?

Germany has, to a certain extent, established a similar law concerning teachers and in some federal states also other civil servants. This is an approach of more secularism, and in Germany there are many admirers of France as well as its culture and political system, especially at the left side of the political system there are many people who want to have a legalistic system. They say that is clear cut to separate the spheres and it is all clear and nobody can misunderstand the rules and such things, but that is not true, and it is not practical.

Q5.In the UK there has been much debate whether women working in the professions can wear a Niqab and successfully carry out their duties, you mentioned the split between the public and private sector. Do you think it is possible for those women who want to work in professions like being a doctor or a teacher that they can reconcile these two identities of keeping their culture and adapting the British culture?

I am sceptical about reconciling because if you want to work in an attractive position or work, then you will have to show your face. That is the minimum, and with the Burqa and Niqab this is not possible, so they have to make compromises and it is not a real problem. The Burqa and Niqab are not really being worn by such persons.

Q6. Do you think this is because women who are so connected to their cultural and religious traditions would not go for those kinds of professions in the first place?

If they were to try to go into such a career, through education, they would learn about feminist issues and personal rights. Then they would put down the Burqa or Niqab, and would at least show their faces.

Q7. Do you think that feminism and feminist ideals are incompatible with wearing the Burqa or Niqab?

Yes, but I have to be respectful to the freedom rights and limitations. These freedom rights have to be justified and also be justified by the principle of proportionality, looking at this problem from a judicial perspective. It is rather easy to understand, and to put in to the judicial categories and all these troubles are coming from political and emotional spheres.

Q8. The European Union’s approach to Human Rights is often being criticized by its lack of coherence. But do you think that due to the cultural differences in Europe a Human Rights strategy can successfully be developed?

It is possible, but it will take a long time and it will be hard, however it is the only perspective. All the religions have changed over time, and by living in different countries with different cultures they have developed differently, and this will also happen to Muslim communities.

Thank you for your time.