Women With Headscarves Need Not Apply in Germany

Germans welcomed an unprecedented number of Middle Easterners into their country—but not always into their workplaces.

A Muslim woman passes a shop October 10, 2001 in Berlin's heavily-Muslim Neukoelln district.
A Muslim woman passes a shop October 10, 2001 in Berlin's heavily-Muslim Neukoelln district. Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

What does it mean to be German? That abstract question has suddenly become an economic puzzle of the highest importance. Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors in 2015 to around a million asylum-seekers, most of them Syrian Muslims, German policymakers have faced the challenge, and opportunity, of integrating the new arrivals into the workforce.

Working at cross purposes with that task, however, have been deep aspects of German identity. Syrian asylum-seekers are finding it difficult to integrate into the economy in part because their potential employers and colleagues feel they haven’t integrated into German culture. Women’s headscarves have become the clearest symbol of these tensions—one that’s increasingly legible in the country’s economic data.

In the run-up to federal elections in 2017, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the country’s largest center-right party, indicated its opposition to full-face Islamic veils. “We are not burqa,” said then-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, in an appeal to the country’s culturally conservative majority. Merkel backed her minister’s comments and supported a ban “wherever legally possible.” A poll conducted by the public broadcaster ARD showed that as many as 81 percent of Germans supported banning full-face Islamic veils in government institutions and schools. Full-face veils are now banned in most public institutions, though Germany stopped short of emulating the full ban in force in neighboring France.

Ultimately, the stakes of the burqa question were relatively low because only a tiny fraction of German residents wore them. The same is not true of the more common hijab.

Germans mostly agree that the hijab—which traditionally covers only a woman’s hair—should not be banned everywhere, but they are divided on whether it should be deemed culturally acceptable. Whereas some accept it without a second thought, others find it alienating and avoid interaction with veiled women. That has become apparent to the veil-wearing asylum-seekers themselves. Even the most educated Syrian women living in Germany have found it difficult to find employment; many claim it’s because they wear the hijab.

This threatens to undermine Merkel’s open-door policy. Although the influx of asylum-seekers caused political stresses, it also represented the potential for economic gains. Several EU diplomats told me that German officials had expressed optimism that the presence of refugees would boost the future growth of their country, which was otherwise rapidly aging. But this analysis presumes an absence of discriminatory hurdles to the asylum-seekers’ ability to find work.

Yet, according to the latest survey by the Institute for Employment Research, the Research Center of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and the Socio-Economic Panel, female refugees in Germany participate in the labor market at much lower rates than their male counterparts. At the time the survey was conducted, in the second half of 2017, “27 percent of male and 6 percent of female refugees were employed.” (Among German citizens, the participation of women is as high as men.) The report claimed that migrant women were held back by family norms, which expected them to raise large numbers of children.

The report also pointed out that the labor participation of women without any children was equally abysmal, although here it failed to offer specific reasons for the disparity with men. Herbert Brücker, one of the authors of the survey, said one factor might be that Syrian refugee women had less work experience in their home countries and enroll in fewer language courses than men in Germany.

But this is where the testimony of the women themselves is instructive. In Bochum, just outside the university town of Dortmund, Aman Mohammad Nabaa was teaching her daughter to speak in German and English via cartoon shows on Netflix. “I am fluent in Arabic and English and now German. I want her to learn it too. TV programs are also a good way,” she said in fluent English, before switching to German with ease.

Nabaa is Syrian and a dentist. She has been in Germany since 2016, and her German is advanced enough to communicate professionally. But securing an internship in clinics was a struggle. “They looked at my application and liked my qualifications and called me for interviews, but when they saw me in a hijab, it’s as if something changed,” she said. “Some have even asked me if I am ready to take it off. When I said no, they asked me to wait for their response. I’m always denied. I don’t have any proof, of course, but their attitude makes me think it is because of my hijab.” She added: “I wonder what does my hijab has to do with being a dentist. My skills are in my head, not in my hair.”

Nabaa knows others in the same predicament. Mais, a Syrian friend, wishes to be a tax consultant. She, too, has been trying to get an internship but worries that she might have failed because she wears a hijab.

Female asylum-seekers admit that they can’t prove their claims of discrimination with documentary evidence. Nabaa said the employers can always counter her assertions by saying she does not have the precise qualifications they are looking for. But if that were the case, she wondered, why would they even bother calling her for an interview? Meanwhile, Nabaa said, disapproval is directed at her on a daily basis as she navigates life in Germany. On the streets or public transportation, she said, men often point at her or roll their eyes in her direction, indicating they don’t approve of her outfit.

Nabaa said she can deal with the daily insults but to be insidiously kept out of the labor market is hard to cope with. “I am grateful that I am here and not in Syria where Assad could get us arrested, but I want to be able to earn our living and live respectably,” she said.

Brücker, the survey author, said their research found that more than 80 percent of female refugees wanted a job sooner or later. He said most refugees support democratic ideals at even greater rates than German citizens.

However, cultural stereotypes play a role in obstructing female Muslim refugees from entering the labor market. “It is hard to get most jobs if you wear a headscarf. Cultural stereotypes come into play,” he said. “This happens more with females because they wear visible signs of religious or cultural differences. That is why it affects female participation more, that is my feeling.”

Doris Weichselbaumer, the head of the Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, conducted a study in 2016 on the same difficulties faced by hijab-wearing women with Turkish names in Germany. She said now Syrian women faced the same constraints. “In my study, an applicant with a Turkish name wearing the headscarf had to send 4.5 times as many applications as an identical applicant with a German name and no headscarf,” she said. “These high levels of discrimination discourage hijab-wearing women from participating in the labor market and, consequently, from attaining education. This makes women more dependent on male partners and potential state support.”

Chris Melzer, a spokesman at the Berlin office of UNHCR, said German attitudes toward the hijab do not necessarily emanate out of Islamophobia. “Many in Germany think that headscarves display inequality, and women’s equality is very important in Germany,” he said. Other than Islamophobes, a section of German intellectuals see the hijab as a symbol of oppression, a misogynous tradition. Of course, there is an irony here: By discouraging women from entering the workforce and thus keeping them at home, Germans may be enforcing the religious conservatism and lack of cultural integration they say it objects to.

The cultural hurdles preventing women from finding work may also be on the side of the hijab-wearing asylum-seekers themselves. A Syrian migrant named Mohamad Wadi said his wife has been petrified of even applying. A hairdresser in all-women hair salons in Syria, she felt she would be compelled to take off her hijab wherever she worked in Germany. An incident with her daughter, who also wears a hijab, has added to her fears. Wadi said their daughter was almost pushed on train tracks by two German boys. “The father of one of the boys did not display any remorse,” he said. “Of course, that has had an impact on my wife, and she feels very discouraged.”

As for Nabaa, on her fifth attempt she finally secured a dental internship. She said the extended job search had left her disheartened, but even so, she would not let it influence how she raises her daughter, who she insists will have the freedom to decide whether she wears the hijab or not. “This is going to be a new generation. She has our roots but is growing up in a different country. She can choose who she wants to be,” Nabaa said. Whether that personal choice ultimately conflicts with her ability to find a job remains to be seen.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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