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Germany´s First “Burqa-Debate”

by Florian Flade


Camera crews, photographers and numerous journalists were waiting in front of the Citizens Registration Office of Frankfurt am Main on Monday. They wanted to get a picture or maybe even a short interview with a 39-year old woman working in the administration building. In the end the lady did not appear but instead stayed at home – on the advice of her employer who told her she would be faced with a crowd of reporters.

Monday should have been the first day at work for the German-Moroccan woman after months of maternity leave. She had given birth to her fourth child and was scheduled to return to work on February 1th. Reason for all the media attention was the notification she send to the employers some weeks ago. From now on, the Muslim lady said, she wants to wear an face-veil – Niqab – at work.

“City official wants to work dressed in Burqa” – the headline of German newspapers on Monday. The Frankfurt case became Germany´s first Burqa-debate after similar events had already gained media attention in France, Switzerland, the UK and Belgium. Is a city employee allowed to cover her face while working with customers? Does Germany´s right of religious freedom mean the face-veil will be accepted even within government buildings?

The 39-year old German citizen had worked for the city of Frankfurt for years and had worn the headscarf without ever causing any hysteria. Colleagues say the faithful Muslima was a friendly, nice and caring person, who apparently discovered a more orthodox and fundamentalist stage of her belief after she married.

Germany´s biggest newspaper reported the case was most likely a form of fraud. The city employee demands a 40,000 EURO compensation if she not allowed to continue her work in the office in Frankfurt, the newspaper claimed. Her lawyer was already talking to city officials about how to solve the case – a second lawyer came up with the suggestion of a 18,000 EURO payment if his client is not allowed to work dressed in the Niqab. The claim about the dismissal wage was never officially confirmed and remained a rumor.

Within a day German politicians got involved in Frankfurt´s “Burqa-Question”. The conservative Christian-Democratic-Union (CDU), Chancellor Merkel´s party, sent out harsh statements about how to deal with the case. It is unacceptable for a city employee to work face-to-face with customers in that service office, if the employee´s face is covered. Local representatives of the liberal FDP-Party and the “Die Grünen”-Party agreed to this statement and supported the idea of firing any employee who is wearing a face-veil.

Muslim community leaders criticized the woman´s decision to wear the Niqab. Ali Kizilkaya, head of the German “Islam-Rat” (Islam Council) even said: “This woman and her demands are harming the Muslims.” A majority of Muslims, Kizilkaya stated, do not believe the face-veil is a religious necessity or instruction. Naime Cekir of Frankfurt´s Muslim woman center shares this view about the face-covering. “This is not only unacceptable and grotesque”, Cekir said, “it is also not based on any Islamic-theological foundation.”

On Wednesday, the Interior Minister of the federal-state of Hessen, Boris Rhein (CDU), announced he would issue a law banning all face-veils for employees in public governmental buildings. Indeed, the government of Hessen banned the Burqa and Niqab for city or state employees.
As a second German federal-state, Lower-Saxonia, is now also planning to issue a ban of face-veils. Lower-Saxonia´s Minister for Integration, Aygül Özkan, told the media the wearing of a Burqa is crossing the lines of public tolerance.

Meanwhile the Frankfurt city employee quit her job, saying she does not want any further media attention and coverage of the dispute. Germany´s first “Burqa-Debate” is over now, but German politicians are already waiting for a new case to come. Months ago, when France banned the Islamic face-veil in public, politicians in Germany called for a similar law.