Can Germans stand up for hijabs as they do for unitards?

During the Olympics, Germany missed a precious opportunity for a society-wide conversation on women’s rights.

Germany's women gymnastics team wore unitards during the Olympic Games in Tokyo [File: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters]

This year’s Olympics were widely hailed as the most progressive instalment of the event in its 125-year history. Early media coverage in the lead-up to the games focused on the fact that almost half of the participants were women – a first for the international event since its inception in 1896 in Athens, Greece.

However, the headlines were soon replaced by coverage of the German women gymnasts’ somewhat radical choice of sportswear, which sought to challenge the expected bikini-cut leotards. The team captured global media attention when they wore long-sleeved, long-legged unitards, which one of the participants said was intended to “show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear”. They were hailed for defying the norms of the often revealing uniforms women athletes are expected to wear, and that some feel “uncomfortable or even sexualised” in.

While the action taken by the German athletes was symbolically important, the conversations surrounding the initiative, the gymnasts’ intentions, and their impact have felt quite limited to the small world of Olympic sports. This has been a missed opportunity to expand the public conversation on the issue, especially for Germany, which has been targeting women’s choice of dress for many years.

For over 15 years, German Muslim women have been fighting against systematic attempts by local authorities and the federal state to dictate what they can and cannot wear in public. It would have only made sense to bring this long struggle to the attention of the German public and have an honest discussion about how all women deserve the right to choose what they wear.

While German Muslims have faced discrimination for decades, women in particular started feeling pressure from the state in the 2000s. In 2005, local authorities in Berlin passed the Berlin Neutrality Act banning religious symbols and dress among civil servants and public sector workers. This, of course, affected Muslim women wearing the hijab the most. Since then, it has been years of legal battles by Muslim women over their right to wear the veil in their workplaces.

In 2015, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a blanket ban on head coverings for Muslim teachers went against their freedom of faith, but that did not discourage federal states from pursuing and maintaining various restrictive measures. Today, about half of the country’s 16 federal states have restrictions of some kind concerning face and head coverings.

In 2017, the German parliament voted to prohibit civil servants from wearing full-face veils, such as the niqab and burqa. In 2018, a Muslim woman was banned from teaching at a primary school in Berlin for wearing a hijab. The decision was upheld by a local court.

In 2020, the Federal Constitutional Court upheld a ban imposed on Muslim trainee lawyers on the basis that it protected religious neutrality. As a result, those who choose to wear the hijab are not allowed to represent the state or judiciary in any way, from taking witness evidence to leading court sessions or even simply observing them at the judges’ bench as trainees.

Then, in May this year, the upper house of the German parliament voted through legislation banning public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, including the hijab. It was then promulgated as a law in July. Germany’s Muslim Coordination Council (KRM) explained that “[i]n practice, it will particularly affect Muslim women who wear a headscarf – regardless of their eligibility or qualifications”.

In July, Muslim women in Germany lost yet another legal battle when the European Court of Justice ruled against two Muslim women who sought justice after being fired for wearing the hijab by private employers. This decision, that many fear will further normalise and legitimise Islamophobic practices, has been a significant indication of the current political reality for Muslim women in Europe as a whole.

In this context of the German state and local authorities systematically denying Muslim women the right to choose what to wear, it is quite disappointing that the German gymnastics team’s stance at the Olympics was not used as an opportunity for a society-wide discussion on the subject.

The fundamental issue is that any and all gender-based oppression should be opposed and neither the state, nor the Olympic committee should decide or define what is acceptable for women to wear at work, at sporting events, or in times of leisure.

This reluctance to link different struggles against women’s oppression allows states and international organisations to only gloss over the issue of women’s rights. The Olympic committee, for example, has been focused on the number of female participants, while failing to address countless issues women are facing during the games, from sexual misconduct to inadequate support for those who are nursing mothers.

But it does not have to be this way. It is possible to bridge struggles in the world of sports to those in everyday life. An inspiring example of how this can be done is that of Les Hijabeuses, a collective of Muslim women in France, who are taking on the French Football Federation’s ban on anyone wearing the veil from competing in official football competitions.

The French state’s war on Muslims, which has disproportionately affected women, is felt both in sports and in public places. But these young women and their allies are refusing to be silenced or pushed off the pitch. They are pushing against the French state’s drive to remove hijab-wearing Muslim women from the public eye by creating spaces for girls and women to play and be active in public.

In Germany, Muslim women, too, have mobilised to defend their rights. Thus for the German gymnastics team – and every other individual or group wishing to take a stand against gender-based oppression in Germany – it is easy to find allies who have long experienced doing such activism.

National organisations like the Coalition for Muslim Women and Germany’s Muslim Coordination Council have long been putting up a fight, organising against policies and practices that they have warned affect more than just Muslims.

Similarly, the Bündnis #GegenBerufsverbot (Coalition Against Professional Ban) led campaigns against hijab bans in employment and the discriminatory nature of the Berlin Neutrality Act, all against the backdrop of a growing far right that even occupies seats in parliament.

There are about 5.5 million Muslims in Germany. Ignoring the rights of Muslim women makes any campaign for gender equality, at best, incomplete. From the banlieues to the Olympics, from leotards to hijabs, from sports arenas to workplaces, the simple truth of the feminist slogan remains a powerful rallying cry: our bodies, our choice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.