The neutrality law in eight German states indicates a structural bias against hijab-wearing women and the structural discrimination scuttles their efforts to find suitable jobs.
Amal Mohamad Naba used the German greeting guten abend as she saw her elderly German neighbour passing by. Naba's daughter followed the cue and said “guten abend opa”, which means good evening grandpa, and jumped up to give him a high five.
The neighbour responded with warmth and inquired about their wellbeing. For an outsider, with a limited knowledge of German politics and society, the exchange between Amal and her neighbour was heartwarming. It was genuine human-to-human contact based on compassion and goodwill. Not for a second did his skin colour, dress code or German mannerisms seem at odds with Hijab wearing Amal, who also happens to be a Syrian refugee.
“Not everyone discriminates against me for covering my hair,” Amal told TRT World. “But a lot of people do. It is especially harder if it has a bearing on my chances to earn for my family.”
Amal is a trained dentist from Syria. She speaks English, Arabic and has learned advanced German to perform her job efficiently. But she has been struggling to get an internship, a prerequisite for her to be employed as a dentist. Despite being invited for several interviews on the basis of her qualifications, she said, she has been denied a shot at an internship too many times.
“I think the real reason I am denied is that once they see me in a hijab, they get uncomfortable,” she said. “One of them even asked me if I would be ready to take it off. Of course, I refused. I think as a result I was refused a place.”
Amal cannot prove she is being discriminated against and said that the employers can easily counter her assertions by finding faults in her qualifications. She does, however, feel it strongly.
In her two-room apartment, Amal lives with her daughter and husband. At the moment the family is surviving on Germany’s largesse. The rent of the house, about 500 euros, is paid by the German state and the family gets the same amount as a stipend for monthly expenses. But Amal insisted that she wants to be financially independent and not a burden.
“We came here after facing many difficulties. My husband crossed the dangerous sea switching many boats. He was even arrested in Italy. I had to languish in camps in Lebanon without him,” Amal narrated the story of how trying times had been. “But Germany gave us a home and helped us. Now, we want to build our lives here with dignity,” she said as she offered us home-made Syrian sweets.
In Amal’s case, lack of proof makes it hard to make a case of structural discrimination. But her account indicates towards attitudinal discrimination that is hindering women like Amal from becoming self-sufficient and in effect also stopping them from contributing to the German economy.
In 2016, an experimental study by Doris Weichselbaumer, Head of the Institute of Women's and Gender Studies at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, revealed that an applicant with a Turkish name wearing a headscarf had to send 4.5 times more applications than an identical applicant with a German name and no headscarf. Her findings confirmed that there is discrimination against female immigrants, and the level of discrimination massively increases if they wear a headscarf.
“These high levels of discrimination discourage hijab-wearing women from participating in the labour market and, consequently, from attaining education. This makes women more dependent on male partners and potential state support, respectively,” she told TRT World.
Amal is perhaps just one of the many Syrian women facing the hurdle that the women of Turkish heritage have been fighting for years.
Moreover, the neutrality law in eight German states indicates a structural bias against hijab-wearing women. Under the law, the hijab is banned in schools and some public institutions. Some argue that this law makes the discrimination structural while others defend it as necessary to keep the workspace ‘secular’. In Germany, the discomfort towards the clothing of a Muslim woman isn’t limited to those who look at Muslims with hatred or the supporters of the far-right, it cuts across the political divide.
The attitudes are manifesting themselves in the daily social and economic lives of the refugees. A recent survey by the Institute for Employment Research and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said that while the rate of employment of refugee men has gone up remarkably, it has remained at just six percent for female refugees.
Herbert Brucker, one of the authors of the survey, told me in an earlier conversation that there were several reasons behind the disparity. He said: patriarchal family structures, that fewer refugee women enrolled in language courses and fewer had prior work experience in their home country, all added to the cultural stereotypes that made it harder for women to enter the job market.
However, it is not just the women losing out. If refugee women are not included in the labour market, the German state has to dole out welfare for much longer. If, on the contrary, they were employed, they would add to the talent pool of Germany and give its economy a boost.
At the heart of the hijab issue is the question Germans are vociferously debating: what is Germany’s leitkultur or leading culture?
The far-right party, Alternative for Deutschland, defined Germaneness in opposition to others, the Muslims. The conservatives of the CDU took a marginally different approach and said while there was space for different people, Germany's culture is primarily Christian. An alternative viewpoint held by many liberals and leftists questioned both interpretations, stressing egalitarianism. However, their opposition to religious symbols, in general, has created a parallel level of discrimination.
Amal is determined to fight on. She has stepped out for a stroll with her daughter, the hijab neatly set around her face. Later, they will be joined by Mohamad, Amal’s husband, and go to the local mosque. She said she finally did get an internship. The struggle, however, made her realise that to get a job would turn out to be an even tougher task.
Some Germans might hesitate in accepting her because of her culture but she is ready to make room for theirs. “I think when they get to know us, we won’t have problems over hijab or no hijab,” she said. “I will tell my daughter to wear a hijab but I will not impose it on her. No one should impose their ideas on others. When she grows up, if she does not want to wear a hijab, it is her choice. But it is my choice to wear one.”