Czech Ombudswoman Anna Šabatová has stirred heated debate on the Czech political scene by standing up for two students who were banned from wearing headscarves at a medical school in Prague. Politicians across the political spectrum as well as President Miloš Zeman have criticized her move, arguing that foreigners should respect Czech cultural traditions.
Two young women from Somalia and Afghanistan who were studying at a Prague nursing school left the institution last year after the headmistress refused to allow them to wear headscarves in class. While the headmistress claimed that the dispute was not about religious freedoms but about adhering to the rules of a given institution, Ombudswoman Anna Šabatová has now defended their right to do so:
“It was indirect discrimination. The girls were, in effect, denied access to education. A school principal cannot use an internal regulation to decide if someone can cover their head with a scarf, which in this case happened to be a religious symbol.”
The Ombudswoman’s stand immediately sparked heated debate about whether students should be allowed to wear headscarves and other religious symbols. Radko Hokovský from the Prague-based European Values think tank argues that the Ombudswoman’s verdict does not reflect the broader situation in Europe:
“The veil is not only a religious symbol. According to a verdict by the German Constitutional Court and other international institutions in Europe, including the European Court of Human Rights, it is also perceived as a form of exclusion within schools and also as discrimination against women.”
Politicians from the Social Democratic Party and TOP 09 have expressed sentiments along the same line, with President Miloš Zeman arguing that allowing women to wear headscarves will eventually lead to allowing burqas as well. Muneeb Hassan Alrawi, head of the Czech Muslim community, says such reactions are absurd:
“If the head of state makes such a statement regarding Islam and Muslims, then we can only expect a rise of intolerance and hate. We hope that this will not go further, but of course we do have worries.”
A heated discussion about headscarves is also underway in the north Bohemian spa town of Teplice, where the locals complain about Muslim visitors being too noisy and not respecting local customs. The town is currently debating a plan to introduce a regulation that would ban women from covering their face in public. Meanwhile, Czech human rights organizations are ringing alarm bells and warning against growing xenophobia among the Czech public.