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Symbol of oppression? Austria bans headscarves in primary schools sparking criticism on social media

Symbol of oppression? Austria bans headscarves in primary schools sparking criticism on social media
The Austrian parliament has passed a law banning Muslim headscarves in primary schools. The legislation was met with skepticism on social media but drew support from European right-wing populists.

The new ban prohibits primary school children from wearing “ideologically or religiously influenced clothing, which involves covering of the head.” The legislation specifically notes that the ban covers only the garments that “either cover the hair entirely or to a significant extent.”

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Medical bandages, as well as headgear worn as protection from rain or snow, do not fall under the new restrictions. The law also specifically exempts the Jewish kippahs and the Sikh patkas from the ban.

‘Populist stunt’ v ‘ivory tower view’

The legislation was supported solely by the MPs from the right-wing ruling coalition consisting of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP) and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), who retain a 60 percent majority in parliament. The opposition was unanimous in rejecting the measure they branded a populist stunt.

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The former education minister, Sonja Hammerschmid, who represents the largest opposition party – the Social Democrats – said the move was “only about the headlines,” while questioning the ban’s effectiveness. Another MP from the green left-wing Jetzt (Now) Party, Stephanie Cox, called it a “populist measure targeting religious minority.”

Irmgard Griss, an MP from the liberal Neos Party, warned that the potential drawbacks of the ban could be greater than the benefits as there is no evidence that wearing a headscarf somehow limits the girls’ learning capabilities. She also said that the ban makes the Muslim girls responsible for the policies of the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia that make women and girls wear headscarves.

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The ruling coalition dismissed the criticism leveled by the opposition as a view “from an ivory tower,” which is “far from reality.” OVP MP, Rudolf Taschner, said that the law was about liberating the young girls from submission while denouncing the headscarf as a “symbol of oppression.” He also said that “commitment to enlightenment is not populism.”

MPs backing the new law did not dispute the fact that it is targeting a specific religious group. The FPO education spokesman, Wendelin Moelzer, openly said that the legislation is “about sending a signal against political Islam.”

Discriminatory in nature?

However, the ruling coalition arguments seemingly failed to strike a chord with the public as people on social media were mostly skeptical about the newly adopted measure and particularly criticized the government for singling out Muslims.

“If there is a headscarf ban, then there should be a ban on all religious symbols in schools covering all religions. Anything else is pure discrimination,” one person wrote.

Many people pointed out that the government focuses on some virtually non-existent problem while overlooking the existing ones.

“A headscarf ban in primary schools? The schools actually have a lot of other, real, problems,” one tweet said.

Some people also ridiculed the new measure in various ways. Some drew attention to the fact that it is not only Muslims who wear headscarves. “A headscarf ban? It is already too late,” one tweet reads while featuring a picture of various Christian statues, icons and mosaics depicting female saints with their heads covered. A clearly satirical caption to the picture reads: “Women wearing headscarves everywhere: clandestine islamization discovered in churches and art.”

Meanwhile, the move quickly received support from various right-wing populist forces across Europe. A regional MP from Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party hailed the measure taken by Vienna and said “Germany should follow the lead.”

Similar sentiment was expressed by a member of Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), Marcel de Graaff, who is also a co-chair of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament. “Bravo, Austria! Netherlands should also de-Islamize!” he wrote in a tweet.

Fight against 'parallel societies'

It is not the first such measure introduced by the Austrian authorities. In November 2018, Austria also banned headscarves in kindergartens as part of the so-called ‘Child Protection Act.’ At that time, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz argued that it would prevent discrimination and the development of “parallel societies.”

In 2017, the Alpine nation also adopted ‘Anti-Face-Veiling Act,’ aimed at removing burqas and facial veils from public spaces. However, this measure apparently did not go as planned. Six months after the ban came into force, it was reported that very few people were penalized under the ban over actually wearing a religious veil. Most of those disobeying the law turned out to be protesters dressed as clowns, in animal costumes or wearing scarves.

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“If this law was intended as a contribution in the fight against conservative Islam, I can only say that it didn’t work out well,” police commander Hermann Greylinger said at the time.

The future of the newly-adopted law seems to be somewhat uncertain as the ruling coalition expects it to be challenged in the Constitutional Court as it failed to win support of the two thirds of MPs, which would have made it unchallengeable.

The legislation already drew the ire of Austria’s official Muslim community organization, IGGO, which called the law “shameless and destructive,” and argued that it “discriminates exclusively against Muslims.” IGGO already vowed to take the issue to the Constitutional Court.

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