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Could Finnish policewomen wear headscarves?

Minority groups would like to see police uniform rules changed to allow religious head coverings, reports an Yle documentary. In neighbouring Sweden police can already wear religious headgear, but Finland is unlikely to follow the neighbouring force's lead in the near future at least.

Silminnäkijä testasi, miltä huivipäinen poliisi näyttäisi. Esimerkiksi Ruotsissa poliisi voi käyttää uskonnollista päähinettä. Image: Yle / Silminnäkijä

A Muslim woman was asked during her interview to join the Police training school, how she would react if she was not allowed to wear a headscarf during working hours. She suggested that the matter could be resolved by negotiating a form of headscarf that would be compatible with the police uniform.

“In the interviewer’s opinion it was not possible to negotiate, and I didn’t get in to the school,” said the 38-year-old woman. “I have always wanted to join the police and now I’ve been forced to give up on my dream. The scarf is my identity and religion; I cannot give it up during working hours.”

The woman says she believes it is important to discuss the matter, but she does not herself want to be the first to speak in public. She was so disappointed about the rejection that she considered leaving Finland. She points to neighbouring Sweden as an example of how religious headgear can become part of police uniforms.

”Scarves, turbans and Jewish kippahs are allowed because the Swedish police want people from different backgrounds to become police,” said Carolina Ekéus of the Swedish police. “In addition, allowing headscarves was seen as an equality measure.”

“Us scarf-wearing Muslim women are needed in the Finnish police,” said the rejected Muslim applicant interviewed by Silminnäkijä. “For example I would know different ways to solve immigrants’ problems than other police officers. I could also train other police in religion and culture issues.”

“I want to be part of society, but society does not want me,” continued the woman. “Building society seems to involve only certain norms and certain workplaces where us ‘scarfheads’ are hidden from other citizens.”

Scarves can be worn underneath other headgear. Image: Yle / Silminnäkijä

Police turban ban remains in place

The Finnish Police University College maintains that it wants to see more recruits from ethnic minorities, and says it receives increasing numbers of inquiries on the topic.

“The target is part of our recruiting strategy,” said Lotta Parjanen of the college. “We want police to be more diverse.”

With that goal in mind, and in light of the increased interest from people with different religious beliefs, the college asked the National Police Board for an opinion on whether religious symbols can be work with a police uniform. The answer was negative.

”Scarves would risk police impartiality and reliability”

The board justified its decision as follows:

Scarves and turbans could cause a health and safety risk to the wearer or his colleague (strangulation or other injury)

Headgear could cause aggression or a negative attitude in people the police come into contact with

Allowing headgear could lead to other requests for religion-related rights, for example the right to break for prayer

Use of headgear could risk the police reputation for impartiality and trustworthiness

“Go visit Sweden”

This is one example of how a scarf might be integrated into the police uniform. Image: Yle / Silminnäkijä

The rejected Muslim applicant interviewed for Silminnäkijä says that the board’s reasoning shows a prejudiced attitude.

“How do they know how citizens would react to a police in a headscarf?” asked the woman. “How can they predict that people would not trust an officer wearing a head scarf as much as any other? Nobody has demanded to use a face covering, as referred to in the justification. A scarf covers the head and neck and it can be work, for example, under a helmet.”

“Have these questions been asked of Muslims or Sikhs at all?” asked the woman. “We representatives of other religions can explain the facts and how things can be organised. Shouldn’t the National Police Board also get to know countries where the scarf is permitted, for example Sweden?”

The grounds for the decision include a section on ‘Conflicts of Interest’:

There are religions in which genders are not treated equally, according to western democratic perceptions. In Finland police treat everyone equally regardless of religion or other convictions, and women’s position is guaranteed by the constitution. In addition in Finland the National Police Board’s target is to increase the number of women in senior positions. This conflict of interest would affect police officers wearing religious symbols, and whose religion does not uphold gender equality. It would also weaken the police organization internally, and operations would not look good externally.

”A Muslim woman can of course be in a leadership position, she can work under a male manager and she can work with men,” said the rejected applicant. “It’s a shame that the Police Board hides behind the official uniform code, rather than simply saying that we do not accept you. It is pointless to talk of Finnish equality and democracy, when the rules do not apply to all groups.”

Räsänen: ”Not every Muslim woman wears a scarf”

Interior Minister Päivi Räsänen regards current guidelines as workable and does not envisage changes to the police uniform.

“It’s important that police are seen as representing official power, not certain religious convictions,” said the Christian Democrat leader. “If police can be called to deal with an emergency callout in which people with certain ideological backgrounds are in conflict with each other, then the official uniform also demonstrates police impartiality.”

”I’m sure some can give up the scarf when on official business,” said Räsänen, who advised people who feel discriminated by the law to make an official complaint.