Austria’s Constitutional Court has ruled that a law banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory, overturning the measure introduced by the ruling conservatives while allied with the far right.
The legislation did not specify that the ban referred to headscarves, instead forbidding the wearing of “religious clothing that is associated with a covering of the head”.
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But the court found on Friday that it was clearly aimed at Muslim headscarves.
That went against the state’s duty to treat officially recognised religions equally, and the principle that singling out any one of them requires special justification, it ruled.
“The selective ban … applies exclusively to Muslim schoolgirls and thereby separates them in a discriminatory manner from other pupils,” court President Christoph Grabenwarter said.
“There is a risk that [the law] could make it harder for Muslim girls to gain access to education, and it could lead to their social exclusion,” he added.
The IGGOe, the body officially recognised as representing the country’s Muslim communities, welcomed the judgement and said the court had ended “the populist politics of bans”.
IGGOe President Umit Vural said in a statement: “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 a integral part of their lived religious practice.”
In 2018, it was estimated that about 4.2 percent of people in Austria were Muslims.
Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has consistently taken a hard line on immigration, and his stance overlaps significantly with that of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which says Islam has no place in the Austrian society.
Kurz formed a coalition with the FPO in 2017 that collapsed last year after the far-right party’s then-leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught in a video sting offering to fix state contracts.
Kurz is now in government with the left-wing Greens, but their coalition agreement includes many policies introduced during his alliance with the FPO, including a plan to extend the headscarf ban up to the age of 14.
Education Minister Heinz Fassmann said the ministry would “take note of the judgement and look into its arguments”.
“I regret that girls will not have the opportunity to make their way through the education system free from compulsion,” he added.
The current government programme says children should grow up “with as little coercion as possible”, for which it gives wearing a headscarf as the only example.