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Top Austrian court lifts headscarf ban in elementary schools

December 11, 2020

The Austrian Constitutional Court has quashed a ban on elementary school kids wearing religious headgear, namely headscarves. Among other things, it ruled the ban risked limiting Muslim girls' access to education.

A Turkish girl wearing a headscarf in school
Judges said the ban violated the principle of equality and was therefore unconstitutionalImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

The Austrian Constitutional Court on Friday overturned  a ban on headscarves  for students in elementary schools, deeming it discriminatory and unconstitutional. Strictly speaking, the law forbids children from wearing "ideologically- or religiously-influenced clothing, which are connected with the covering of the head."

However the court's top judge, Christoph Grabenwarter, said that the government's additional material accompanying the law had made it clear that the item of clothing being targeted was a headscarf.

The court declared that the contentious law, which has been in place since autumn 2019, violated the principle of equality and the state's obligation to religious neutrality because in practice it  only affected students of one religion, Islam.

"It carries the risk of hindering Muslim girls' access to education and more precisely of shutting them off from society," Grabenwarter said.

Family say law is discriminatory 

The decision comes after two children and their parents appealed against the law, arguing that the ban only applied to scarves that cover the entire head, but not to smaller religious head coverings worn by observant Jewish or Sikh male students.

The family said the ban is therefore a disproportionate  infringement on religious freedom,  the religious upbringing of children, and a violation of the principle of equality.

The law had been passed last year by a majority of conservative and far-right legislators who said the ban protected females from sexist oppression and from politicized Islamist ideology.

Strenghthening human rights

The Austrian Islamic Faith Community (IGGOe) welcomed the court's decision as an important step towards religious freedom and the rule of law.

"Equal opportunity and the autonomy of girls and women in our society cannot be achieved through bans," IGGOe president Umit Vural said in a statement.

Vural said it was important to focus on human rights and that pressuring girls to wear headscarves is also unacceptable.

"We don't condone disparaging attitudes towards women who decide against the headscarf... and we also cannot agree with the curtailing of the religious freedom of those Muslim women who understand the headscarf to be an integral part of their lived religious practice," Vural said.

Headscarf ban in Germany? (14.08.2018)

mvb/msh (AFP, dpa, KNA)