“Teacher take your headscarf off !”

17th May 2016 0 By Nandini

These words written by Ebru Umar,a journalist who writes for Metro to a primary school teacher caught my eye. The school comes under the category ‘public’, which means that it opens its doors to students and teachers of all faiths in a spirit of mutual respect. Of the different people who responded in my newspaper to Ebru’s words, here is the one written by Sarah Spruijt.

“Children see the outside world as well

I am a high school student and I grew up in an extremely white environment in the province of Friesland. I have actually never talked to a woman who wears a headscarf and I find that a pity because it is not representative of our society. I find it quite lovely that in the protected atmosphere of Gooi, a primary school teacher chooses to wear one. And let’s be sure of this: she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will. And no – this does not mean that the children of the primary school cannot be brought up to be neutral. You cannot close them from the outside world, and what better place to be confronted with this than in the protected environment of primary school? Apart from the headscarf, the children will not know anything about the religious beliefs of the teacher, and they are anyway going to be coming across headscarves in reality or on the internet. You can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs, Ebru. Even children can’t. This is a part of upbringing, a part of Dutch society. And however much of a pity you find it, a part of the future.”

One other respondent’s argument in the newspaper was this: that while the freedom of expression and faith should continue unabated, the outward display of one’s faith should be set aside, because, we, in the Netherlands do not know how to have this discussion.


Yet young Sarah did her best to open up a discussion. I was struck by the fact that a person under eighteen could argue so simply and clearly, and with such wisdom.


In India, this scenario would not play out in quite the same way.  In principle no one could ask another to take off their headscarf or turban. Many Dutch people equate India with Hinduism. India is not a Hindu country. India’s constitution, while being secular, gives different religions a legal framework through ‘personal laws.’ In this way, people can and do express their religion in a variety of ways. This makes it different from the Dutch constitution. In doing so, it echoes Sarah when she says “you can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs”. The outward expression is not where the problem lies. It lies in the fact that the outward show of faith, accepted by law, is one of the ways by which to unlawfully exploit or turn against people of another faith. This is what happened when innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as they could be clearly recognized by the turbans they wore. When Sarah writes of the teacher, “she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will”, could she be referring to the risk one takes – opening oneself up to judgement (or worse) with such an outward show of faith?


Many of us here in the Netherlands resort to wearing something by which we draw strength, or which has meaning for us as a way to hold on to our beliefs. I, a teacher have worn a Buddhist pendant in the classroom for the last one year in schools that refer to themselves as having a Christian identity. Yet no one said “teacher take your pendant off”. It appears to me that some symbols or outward expressions of faith are not seen as problematic in the Netherlands, but others are. What would Ebru have to say about my pendant, I wonder.

Unlike Sarah, I have fortunately had the opportunity to talk to women in headscarves in the Netherlands, and have enjoyed the experience.

Here is a link to one such meeting. False Flowers and Real Wasps