State Restrictions on Religious Dress for Teachers Target Muslim Women
February 26, 2009
People should be judged on the basis of their conduct, not views imputed to them by virtue of a religious symbol they wear.
Haleh Chahrokh, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division

(Berlin) - German state bans on religious symbols and clothing for teachers and other civil servants discriminate against Muslim women who wear the headscarf, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 67-page report, "Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality: Headscarf Bans for Teachers and Civil Servants in Germany," is based on extensive research over an eight-month period. It 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.

"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."

Half of Germany's 16 states (Länder) - Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saarland - have  laws prohibiting public school teachers (and other civil servants in several states) from wearing the headscarf at work. 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 in law. The other eight German states have no such restrictions.

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 (the most recent ruling was on January 26, 2009, on a case in Baden-Württemberg) 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."

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 German states, 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.

The research for the report included interviews with Muslim women in Germany affected by the ban. It documents the profound effect of the bans on women's lives. The laws in all eight states effectively prohibit women who wear the headscarf from working as teachers. Teachers wearing the headscarf have been told to remove it and been have subject to disciplinary action if they refused. 

If a teacher refuses to remove her headscarf and subsequently 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."

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. As a result of the bans, some of the women left their home states or Germany altogether, while others felt compelled to remove their headscarf to keep their jobs, after years of studies and investment in developing their skills. They complained of feeling alienated and excluded, even though many have lived in Germany all their lives.

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."

Human Rights Watch calls on state governments 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.