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Do bans on the headscarf in Europe protect women from oppression and empower them? Do they ensure religious neutrality? Not quite.


A report released by Human Rights Watch on February 26 claims that the German state bans on religious symbols and clothing for teachers and other civil servants discriminate against Muslim women who wear the headscarf. These state restrictions on religious dress for teachers directly target muslim women.


Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized governments such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran when they force women to wear religious clothing. But laws such as those in hald of the German states (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saarland), which exclude women who wear the headscarf from public employment, run afoul of the same international standards, undercutting women's autonomy, their right to privacy, self expression and religious freedom in a similar way.

"These laws in Germany clearly target the headscarf, forcing women who wear it to choose between their jobs and their religious beliefs," said Haleh Chahrokh, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "They discriminate on the grounds of both gender and religion and violate these women's human rights."

Proponents of restrictions on the headscarf frequently argue that bans protect women from oppression and empower them. The women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had all freely chosen to wear the headscarf. Even for women who are pressed to wear a headscarf, but are able to become teachers, blocking access to their profession will not protect them from oppression. Some affected women pointed out that, far from empowering them, the bans had led to deterioration in their social position. In the words of one woman:
"As long as we were cleaning in schools, nobody had a problem with the headscarf."

Some of the laws allow some exemptions for Christian and "Western" cultural traditions. None of the laws explicitly target the headscarf, but parliamentary debates and official explanatory documents prior to their introduction make clear that the headscarf is the focus. Every court case about the restrictions has concerned the headscarf issue.
"The claim that these restrictions don't discriminate doesn't stand up," said Chahrokh, "In practice, the only people affected by them are Muslim women who wear the headscarf." Some of the teachers affected told Human Rights Watch that they had offered to wear alternatives to the headscarf, such as large hats, or to tie the scarves in atypical styles, but that these offers were rejected.

If a teacher refuses to remove her headscarf and is unsuccessful in court proceedings, she runs the risk of losing her civil servant status and of being removed from her teaching position. Muslim trainee teachers cannot find employment as public school teachers after successful completion of their education unless they remove their headscarves.

State officials justify the restrictions on the basis that teachers have a duty to ensure that schools remain neutral on questions of religion and ideology. But there is no evidence that the teachers' conduct violated that duty. Instead, the bans are based on the notion that merely wearing the headscarf places neutrality at risk.

"People should be judged on the basis of their conduct, not views imputed to them by virtue of a religious symbol they wear," said Chahrokh. "If there are concrete concerns about individuals, they should be addressed through ordinary disciplinary procedures, on a case-by-case basis."

State governments are called to revise and repeal legislation on prohibition of religious dress and symbols and ensure that their legislation and procedures comply with Germany's international human rights obligations. The German states should guarantee in particular that regulations do not discriminate on grounds of gender or religion and that freedom of religion and expression are fully protected


To read the Human Rights Watch report
"Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality: Headscarf Bans for Teachers and Civil Servants in Germany"
Click here to read online
Click here to download the full report

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