German teachers stand up for Muslim student banned from wearing niqab at school

© Abed Omar Qusini
The German Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) has criticized a court decision that forbid a student in the city of Osnabruck from attending classes dressed in a niqab – veiled headwear attached to a full body covering.

“A ban on full face veils is completely the wrong way,” GEW spokesperson Ilka Hoffmann told Neue Osnabrucker Zeitung, a local newspaper. “We cannot exclude women from education just because they are wearing the burqa or niqab.”

The student in question, who has not been named, but is over 18 years of age, was barred from attending lessons at the Sophie Scholl night school in the western German city, for refusing to remove the garment.

The regional court ruled against her Monday, and it is not yet clear if the student will appeal the decision at a higher-level legal body, or simply abandon her course, which is assumed to be voluntary. The Sophie Scholl School mostly teaches adults attempting to complete secondary education.

Sophie Scholl School in Osnabruck ©

GEW believes that taking a hardline approach is counter-productive.

“During class, the students can start to develop self-confidence, which is something that is necessary in order to take off the veil against family tradition,” said Hoffmann. “We should encourage this kind of transformation process, not hinder it.”

The school had argued that the niqab made it difficult to identify the student, meaning there was no means of verifying that it was her completing her course, and said that the veil was preventing the student and teachers from communicating using “non-verbal elements and body language," which the school said was “essential.”

GEW has said that teachers should not wear face-obscuring clothing during their classes.

“Female teachers have to set an example and represent the state. A burqa or niqab does not go along with that,” said Hoffmann.

The controversy steps directly into a heated public debate, and a legal quagmire to boot.

The ruling CDU, under pressure from anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic right-wing parties recently said that it plans to ban the burqa, which is an even more concealing full-body garment, with just a mesh at eye-level, in public places, though it is not clear how this would affect the niqab, and other less ostentatious veils.

"We unanimously reject the burqa," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said last week. "It does not fit in our open country."

Chancellor Angela Merkel also claimed that burqa wearers would have “little chance of integrating in Germany.”

But reforms are not guaranteed to follow the rhetoric.

Germany’s law enshrines the freedom of religion, so like the 2010 French ban of face coverings in public, any wholesale measure would have to be framed in terms of security and civic manners, rather than explicit anti-religious sentiment.

So far, the only places where there have been restrictions based on face-coverings are government institutions, where they are banned alongside other religious symbols, due to a state commitment to secularism.

There will also be political opposition.

The large center-left party SPD has accused the government of “stoking fear” with its statement, while the major Turkish community organization TGD said that the veil ban in France and elsewhere has not been proven to prevent terrorism.

But even if no new laws are introduced, the debate is designed to send a clear message about integration to more than 1 million people who have arrived in Germany as refugees over the past two years, the majority of whom are from Muslim countries.