“A great part of the decision was probably due to fears regarding Islam and fundamentalism and maybe authorities thought to confront these fears with a ban,” said Haleh Chahrokh, author of HRW report "Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality.”
Following a 2003 constitutional court ruling that gave states the right to choose their own laws on religious clothing in schools, bans have been introduced in eight German states - Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland. While states say the headscarf threatens neutrality in schools, Chahrokh says the ban violates the rights of Muslim women.
"These laws in Germany clearly target the headscarf, forcing women who wear it to choose between their jobs and their religious beliefs," Chahrokh said, adding that she found it remarkable that some women had to make the difficult choice after working in the German school system for up to ten years.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 30 women affected by the ban for the report published on Thursday, but Chahrokh believes the number of women suffering from the ban is much higher. “Apart from the 34 women we spoke to, there are 20 more court cases regarding teachers or teaching positions, but that's just the tip of the iceberg - no one knows how many women actually go to court and are willing to go through this,” she said.
Germany is home to some 3 million Muslims, many of whom have Turkish roots, and the country openly grapples with issues of integration and immigration. While schools in Germany are subject to strict regulations which ensure neutrality on questions on religion and ideology, people directly affected, such as fellow teachers or students, usually don't mind Muslim women wearing headscarves at work, the report said.
“There has never been any bad reaction from other teachers, students or parents in any of the court cases. It was always a matter of the teaching authorities,” Chahrokh told The Local.
Some of the teachers Human Rights Watch interviewed said they offered to tie their headscarf in a different way or simply wear large hats, but authorities rejected these proposals.
“Because maternity leave regulations for teachers are quite generous, some women who get pregnant simply decide to extend their leave - even though they actually want to return to their job – in hopes that the ban will be reversed or rules will relax,” Chahrokh said.
“But a lot of them just migrate to other parts of the country or even leave Germany altogether,” she added.
Human Rights Watch has criticised Middle Eastern governments for forcing women to cover themselves in religious garb, but German state bans “run afoul of the same international standards,” the study said, saying it takes away women's autonomy. The organisation has called for Germany to repeal or revise the laws.