Debate Flares Over Muslim Hijab in Schools

Critics Claim Islamophobia Is To Blame for Ban on Headscarf

By Colin Bennett and Celine Sidani

Photo courtesy of Kamyar Adl via Flickr

Headscarves in public schools is a hotly contested issue across Europe. Photo courtesy of Kamyar Adl via Flickr.

Last month, Czech ombudswoman Anna Sabatova defended the rights of Muslim students to wear hijabs in schools, specifically citing as discriminatory the hijab ban at a Prague nursing school. The ban caused two Muslim students, one from Afghanistan and the other from Somalia, to drop out in November of last year.

Sabatova’s statements raised questions about Islamophobia in the Czech Republic, a sentiment that has been fueled by the country’s political rhetoric and media. Religion in schools and Islam’s place in Europe, both issues once predominantly discussed in Western European countries with higher proportional Muslim populations, have now become controversies in the Czech Republic, where only 0.1 percent of the population is Muslim.

In a speech this May, Milos Zeman, the Czech president, attributed a killing spree at the Jewish Museum of Belgium to the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. “I am not reassured by the claims that this is the work of only a small fringe group,” Zeman said. “I believe that xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism stems from the essential ideology that these fanatical groups are based on.”

Some in the country point to the upcoming elections to explain the anti-Islamic overtones of Czech politics and media.

“If you can pick on someone less, if you can label somebody as less than human, and then you know that that is the general sentiment of the country, you will get the votes of those people,” said Norashley Younes, an American living in Prague who converted to Islam seven years ago. Rather than condemn the Czech people as wholly Islamophobic, Younes explained that her personal experiences with Czechs on the streets varied when she wore her hijab. Some would yell at her, while others would just stare or ask about what she was wearing.

“Why are women wearing veils? Do they wear them because they would like to show that they are different? They don’t want to adapt?”

Other Czech citizens openly acknowledge that many in the country are prejudiced against Muslims.

“Czech people are unfortunately very xenophobic,” said Tomas Suchomel, a 41-year-old light designer and taxi driver. He mentioned that even 25 years after the revolution opened up the closed society created by the Communist regime, Czech people are still very fearful of opening up to Muslims, Roma, African-Americans, and other minority groups in the Czech Republic. Suchomel continued on to say that the process of overcoming this xenophobia would take many generations.

During the more than four decades of communist rule, immigration was limited and discussion of minority rights and multiculturalism was non-existent. The government sought to create a homogeneous society. As the actual Czech populace has limited interaction with Muslims, who come from outside the country, the media has a strong influence on the popular opinion of Islam. And, in recent history, the Czech Republic has demonstrated a general mistrust of Islam. In 1996, the city council of Teplice, a town on the German border, rejected the proposal of building a mosque in the town for fear that the mosque would bring with it the threat of radical Islam. In April 2014, police dramatically raided the Islamic Foundation in Prague centre during prayer because one man allegedly translated and published a book with a radical Islamic message.

According to a 2011 census by the Czech Statistical Office, 34 percent of Czech people are non-religious, and some in the country view the hijab ban as a result of custom rather than a reaction against Islam.

In fact, some Czech citizens attribute the ban to the idea that many Czechs do not quite understand why some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves. “Czechs are not religious people in general, so I feel as though they don’t understand wearing something like this is because of religion,” said Layla Rawji, a 17-year-old Muslim at the International School of Prague.

Michael Murad, a social studies professor at Masaryk University, thinks that Czech people are misunderstanding the purpose of the hijab. “This debate is getting into questions which are hard for the majority of Czechs,” Murad said. “Why are women wearing veils? Do they wear them because they would like to show that they are different? They don’t want to adapt?”

Yasar Abu Ghosh, an anthropologist at Charles University, does not believe the ban is inherently discriminatory and defended the headmistress of the nursing school as just in enforcing policy. “It seemed that she was troubled by putting forward what she thought was given by the internal school rules,” Ghosh said. He continued on to say that the ban and other rules, however, could be enforced in a discriminatory manner.

Marcel Chladek, the Czech Education Minister, does not fully support the ban. In a television appearance on August 31, Chladek said that he saw no problem with Muslim women wearing hijabs in school, stating that headdresses only became a security problem when they obscured the face.

Colin Bennett is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. His hometown is Moraga, California.
Celine Sidani is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is South Brunswick, New Jersey.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 1, News

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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