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Kicking the headscarf habit

Emel Abidin-Algan tells how and why she stopped wearing a headscarf.

Last year Emel Abidin-Algan removed her headscarf - and gave it the Haus der Geschichte (German History Museum) in Bonn. For the 45-year-old mother of six, it was the culmination of a long process. Her father, Yusuf Zeynelabidin, was the founder of the German section of Milli Görüs (the national vision), which is considered a radical Islamic group by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Her husband Ahmet is an official at the Islamic Federation in Berlin. After studies in English language and literature, Emel Abidin-Algan headed the Islamic Women's Association in Berlin for ten years. She left this post when she removed her headscarf, and studied communication management. Her 25-year-old daughter wears a headscarf, but as Algan says, "I don't make things easy for her."

Emel Abidin-Algan. Photo by Stephan Schmidt, courtesy of

I recently ran into a young woman I've known since she was a girl and who was wearing a headscarf. She had just finished training to be kindergarten teacher and in the course of our brief conversation I wished her good luck for finding a job.

I myself decided about a year ago, after over 30 years of wearing one, to live my life without a headscarf. Which is why I pointed to my head and said, "Things are just as good without a headscarf." The young girl smiled and replied with a hint of disdain, "I manage just as well with mine on."

As is the case with this young girl, many women who wear the headscarf or veil are unaware of the original religious reasoning behind covering the female body. Here I should add that the Koran consists of 6,600 verses which were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years. The two verses which mention veiling date from the later period in Medina where harassment of believing women was on the rise because they were being confused with slaves. And men were letting themselves be distracted by alluringly bejewelled women which even led to an accident involving a broken nose.

For this reason God issued some clothing tips for women so that they would be recognised and avoid being insulted (Sura 33:59). He recommended women tie the ends of their scarves over their jewelled chests (Sure 24/31). Until that point there had never been any mention of a dress code.

And anyway, the religion being propagated by Muhammad at the time was not concerned with limitation. It was much more about recalling to the belief in one creator and bringing relief to women in the prevailing misogynistic climate at the time where new-born girls were even being buried alive.

Today, 1,400 years later, when this girl is wearing her headscarf, has nothing in common with Muhammad's time. The two revelations in the Koran also refer only to covering the body. Head covering dates back to later interpretations of the prophet's deliverances. It is worth noting that it was male scholars who defined for posterity the zones of shame for men and women.

This girl today wants to express strength and self-confidence with her determination. I understand this mentality completely because I used to think exactly the same way. Only after intensive research into the original sources and certain new experiences of my own, was I able to convince myself that I needed to change.

Today, the majority of Muslim women who wear headscarves believe that they are fulfilling a religious duty. But when talking about responsible and self-determined behaviour, it does make a difference if you're subjecting yourself to duties outlined by others or whether you're making an obligation to something based on your own experiences and conclusions.

Today I ask myself why religion is always evoked to justify wearing a headscarf, but that removing it out of conviction is never seen as a religious act.

My own experience has taught me that there are serious reasons that make it impossible to shed one's headscarf from one day to the next. Values like shame and obedience are too deeply embedded in our minds, the fear of sin and losing belief too overwhelming, courage too faltering to experience one will and question things one has learned. Habits quickly become a matter of course and bring security. State prohibitions and politicians' appeals against the headscarf have little impact in the face of such things.

The recent appeal by the politician Ekin Deligöz to Muslim women to remove their headscarves will fall on as many deaf ears as an appeal by Muslims to the majority of German society to stop drinking beer. Because to Muslim women, the headscarf is what beer is to many Germans: a familiar habit. Removing the headscarf is an empty gesture if it is not a result of a process of genuine consideration.

Sadly, experience has taught me that many women are not prepared to really think about their habit of covering their heads. But if one desires an open-minded exchange with people of different opinions and a better and less prejudiced understanding of the world of men, then it is better not to wear a headscarf. Because experience in dealing with the opposite sex - and this goes for raising sons as well as building relationships - is absolutely indispensable.

We must first to learn to call the thorns in our sides by their names. Because unembellished freedom of opinion as the achievement of our time or adherence to dogmatic religious understanding is pointless as an end in itself that stymies communication and understanding.

Out of consideration for so-called Muslim cultural characteristics, the majority of German society practices patience and reserve, instead of actively pursuing a confrontation with the Muslims out of curiosity or desire for knowledge. They retreat all too quickly when confronted with the answer that the Koran says so and so or that was how the Prophet did things.

But what creator-concept is this that compels only women to wear a uniform as a conscious demonstration of their religious conviction? Why are men not obliged to do the same? A belief that religion consists of God's so-called laws and religious duties which should never be questioned, instead of godly wisdom and recommendations, only prevents open communication with people of other beliefs and hampers the desire to think the meaning of one's actions.

Conscious refusal to communicate can hardly have been the intention of the almighty creator of the universe, who fitted humans with minds and hearts and gave them the freedom of choice. In the same way, it cannot be the will of God for us to pursue in the name of Islam a fanatical politics that separates believers from unbelievers, sees the devil as the competition to the creator and reduces people to drive-ridden bodies and their opinions!

There are so many other concerns that have to be addressed today. The main problem is taking care of the next generation. And it's mothers in particular who can protect their children from religious fanaticism. Does a headscarf make women better mothers? The Prophet also spoke of women in his farewell sermon. "I commend you to be good to women. The best among you are those who are best to their wives - and those who are not are ignoble."

The argument that a woman conceals her attractions with a headscarf seems ludicrous today, especially as so many young girls do exactly the opposite with their stylish headscarves and jewels. In my experience, stimuli-overload has made men fairly immune.

How often since my unveiling have I looked men in the eye and thought: Hey, he's not even looking at me?! And to think I spent 30 years covering myself from the supposed harassment of men's eyes.

And since we're on the subject of attractions, what about men's attractions? There are so many attractive men's hands out there – should we put in a request for a revelation obliging them to wear gloves?! And anyway, what's the problem with attraction? Is it not a way of making people interesting to one another and arousing sympathy?

It was men who introduced headscarf-wearing. Now it's time for them to help us get rid of it again – by being honest and courageous enough to tell us how they really perceive women with or without headscarves.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on November 8, 2006.

Translation: Lucy Powell.

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