German Ban on Headscarves Violates Rights, Says Watchdog | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.02.2009
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German Ban on Headscarves Violates Rights, Says Watchdog

According to a report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the law banning female teachers from wearing the Islamic headscarf in parts of Germany violates the rights of Muslim women.

A woman wearing a headscarf stands outside a court in Frankfurt

Half of German states have laws banning headscarves

In its 67-page report, published Thursday, Feb. 26, HRW said that ban, in force in half of the 16 German states, "discriminates against Muslim women, excluding them from teaching and other public sector employment on the basis of their faith."

The laws were all introduced in the last five years, following a 2003 Constitutional Court ruling that restrictions on religious dress are only permissible if explicitly laid down by law. The remaining eight German states have no such restrictions.

Based on extensive research and interviews with women affected by the law over an eight-month period, the HRW "Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality: Headscarf Bans for Teachers and Civil Servants in Germany," analyzes the human rights implications of the bans and their effect on the lives of Muslim women teachers, including those who have been employed for many years. It says that the bans have caused some women to give up their careers or to leave Germany, where they have lived all their lives.

Teachers forced to choose between job and religion

Islamic classes in a German school

Teachers who do not comply face consequences

"The measures effectively force women to choose between their employment and the manifestation of their religious beliefs, violating their right to freedom of religion and equal treatment," the New York-based HRW said. "The regulations are not abstract concerns. The restrictions have a profound effect on women's lives."

"These laws discriminate on the grounds of both gender and religion and violate these women's human rights," said Haleh Chahrokh, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division at HRW in a statement.

According to the HRW report, while none of the laws explicitly target the headscarf, 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 report states.

"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.

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

Compromises rebutted, says HRW

Models display the creation by Malaysian designers during the sneak preview of Islamic fashion showcase of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week

Alternative headscarf designs were rejected

The HRW report claims that teachers wearing the headscarf have been told to remove it and been have subject to disciplinary action if they refused. 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.

The Islamic headscarf has been the subject of heated political debate in Germany, home to three million Muslims and the biggest Turkish community outside Turkey.

Following a series of court cases, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled it was up to Germany's states to decide their policy, prompting an even split amongst the 16 regions.

HRW recommended that the eight states where a ban is in force should repeal the laws. "State governments should ... ensure that their legislation and procedures are compatible with Germany's international human rights obligations, guaranteeing in particular that these do not discriminate on grounds of gender or religion," the group said.

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