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German States Move To Enact Headscarf Bans

Germany’s highest court confirmed the right of a female Muslim teacher to wear a headscarf in the classroom, but also said states could choose to enact legislation banning the same. That’s exactly what many plan to do.


A short-lived victory? Fereshta Ludin won the right to teach with her headscarf.

Fereshta Ludin’s victory was a short-lived one. A day after Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in her favor and said Stuttgart school authorities were wrong to bar her from a teaching job because she insisted on wearing a headscarf in the classroom, several German states have announced plans to change their laws to enact such a ban.

Ludin, a 31-year-old Afghanistan native was banned from taking up post to teach English and German teacher in primary and secondary schools in 1998, because she insisted on wearing her headscarf, or hijab as it is known in Arabic, in the classroom for religious reasons. The board of education in the state of Baden Württemberg argued at the time that her headscarf would violate the state’s neutrality on religion.

Since then Ludin, who became a German citizen in 1995, has seen her case move through a string of German courts -- from the municipal level all the way to Germany's highest court.

Court: States Need Clear Laws

Bundesverfassungsgericht Urteil mit Thumbnail

Germany's Constitutional Court

On Wednesday, the constitutional court (photo) stressed in its ruling that though Germany’s constitutional law did not explicitly forbid the wearing of headscarves in the classroom in state-run schools in the first place, the possibility remained for states to legally enact such a ban.

The court stressed that the German state’s neutrality on religion shouldn’t be understood as a strict separation of church and state. Thus, if federal states didn’t want to employ teachers wearing a headscarf, they would first need to create unambiguous laws that expressly forbid religious symbols in the classroom, the court said. In Ludin’s case, such a legal ban wasn’t in place in the state of Baden-Württemberg, it noted.

Most German States in Favor of Legal Ban

A string of German states have now issued statements saying they plan to introduce legislation that would ban Muslim teachers from wearing the headscarf in the future in state-run schools and thus preserve the states' neutral stance on religion.

The state of Hesse was one of the first to react. "Our constitution is based on a Christian-occidental tradition and portrays a value system, which the teachers have to follow," Education Minister Karin Wolff of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party said. She added the state "would begin to draw up legislation to ban headscarves in the classroom as soon as possible."

Baden-Württemberg Education Minister Annette Schavan, also a Christian Democrat, said after the decision she would examine the ruling in closer detail. "After that the state parliament will decide if Baden-Württemberg should have such a legal regulation in place," she said, thus dampening Ludin’s hopes that she will be able to teach in the state in the future while wearing a headscarf.

Authorities in traditionally Catholic Bavaria, who fought a long battle to keep the right to display crucifixes in the classroom in 1995, said in a statement, "If necessary we will pass an appropriate state law. In any case, we want to make sure that teachers cannot wear headscarves in state schools."

Other states, including Lower-Saxony, Bremen and Berlin, have also announced they will introduce legislation to enact a headscarf ban in schools. Lower-Saxony Education Minister Bernd Busemann stressed, "the state’s responsibility for religious neutrality is an indispensable thing, that shouldn’t be allowed to be diluted."

Partial victory for Muslims

But Wednesday’s decision was still a partial victory for Ludin, who has been battling for five years to get her headscarf accepted in the classroom.

Talking to reporters outside the court on Wednesday, Ludin said: "For years in all the court cases I felt stigmatized just because I wear a headscarf. The decision is a big relief for me." Ludin, who has always stressed that both her religion as well as the democratic values of her new country belong to her identity, told German news agency DPA recently: "How can I teach emancipation and tolerance, when I feel oppressed myself?"

Germany's Central Council of Muslims, which represents more than 3 million Muslims in the country, said the ruling gave Muslim women more work opportunities and independence. "The ruling takes into account the fact that headscarves in Germany have long been a part of everyday life," the council said in a statement.

Muslimische Frauen am Computer

Muslim women

But some observers feared the judgement could rebound on Muslim women by leading to more draconian local moves against headscarves in school.

The German weekly Die Zeit wrote that by passing the issue back to the state level, the Constitutional Court had allowed authorities to make their own laws. "Then nothing will stop there being a decisive 'no' to headscarves. The judges were too cowardly to resolve the argument," the paper wrote.

A divisive issue across Europe

The hijab, or headscarf, meant to shield Muslim women from the eyes of men outside their family as laid down in the Koran, has been the subject of growing debate in several parts of Europe for more than a decade. But it especially intensified following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Amid heightened fears that wearing a veil is a symbol of fundamentalist Islam, the headscarf issue on another level also reflects sensitive topics such as the modern secular identities of European states, the compatibility of Islam with largely Christian Europe, the acceptance of immigrants, integration and religious rights.

The issue is especially controversial in neighboring France, where headscarf rows are routine at the beginning of every school year, sparking a round of wrangling between Muslims, civil liberties groups and the government.

The French Education Ministry has even appointed a full-time staff member, dubbed "Madame Headscarf" in the press, to mediate between the various sides. On Wednesday, Parisian school district authorities banned two Muslim girls from attending class until they were willing to remove their headscarves.

Even in Sweden, famous for its tolerance, Nadja Jebril, an ethnic Palestinian finally won the right to host her own cooking show on state television, after she was originally turned down for another program because of her headscarf. An exasperated Jebril told Swedish television last weekend, "I am a human being with a lot of feelings and thoughts, not just a piece of cloth."

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