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Germany

High Court Rules Headscarves Okay for Teachers

Germany’s highest court on Wednesday confirmed the right of a female Muslim teacher to wear a headscarf in the classroom. The move lays to rest a long-standing row in Germany, that has caused controversy all over Europe.

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Justice at last? Fereshta Ludin has won the right to teach with her headscarf.

Fereshta Ludin will be celebrating a victory on Wednesday, after the Federal Constitutional Court (BVG) 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.

The city prohibited Ludin, a 31-year-old Afghanistan native, from taking up a post as an 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. Last October, the Federal Administrative Court in Berlin ruled that teachers at public schools must refrain from openly displaying religious symbols in the classroom, since they are representatives of the state and function as role models for their students.

Talking to reporters outside the court on Wednesday, Ludin said: "For years in all the court cases I felt stigmatised 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?"

Court: States need clear laws

But on Wednesday, Presiding Judge Winfried Hassemer said the court decision, which overturned the October ruling of the Federal Administrative Court, shouldn’t be interpreted as victory for the claimant. "It seems as if the Constitutional Court is of the opinion, that a teacher wearing a headscarf in school is constitutionally sound. That is not the case. It only looks like it," he said.

The Constitutional Court underlined 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, he noted.

Baden-Württemberg’s Education Minister, Annette Schavan of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, said after the decision she would examine the ruling in close detail. "After that the state parliament will decide if Baden-Württemberg should have such a legal regulation in place," she said.

Ludin’s case is the second headscarf issue the Constitutional Court has handled in recent months. In August, it ruled that Muslim shop assistants could not be fired for wearing a headscarf, despite complaints by managers, that customers didn’t look favorably upon it.

Mixed reactions

Political parties offered a mixed reaction to Wednesday's ruling. Volker Beck, leader of the Green Party's parliamentary group, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, hailed the decision. "Karlsruhe has made a good decision," he said. He said it was the job of the state legislatures to draw up clear laws regarding "which form and to what extent religious symbols have a place in schools."

Guido Westerwelle, head of the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party, called it "wise" that the Constitutional Court had "passed on the decision where it rightly belonged: in the state legislatures." He said it was the responsibility of the state to ensure religious neutrality in schools and to protect it. "Religion belongs in religion classes," he said.

The parliamentary spokesman for the conservative Christian Democrats, Norbert Röttgen, said it was to be "welcomed" that the wearing of headscarves in schools could be forbidden. He said it had to be considered that teachers have a role-model function.

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.

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. This week a state commission is debating whether Paris should forbid Muslim girls form wearing a scarf to class.

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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