Austria bans Muslim headscarf in primary schools

Austria has passed a law intended to ban Muslim girls from wearing a headscarf in primary schools. The Jewish yarmulke and Sikh patka are not included in the new measure.

Austria's parliament has passed a law intended to ban Muslim girls from wearing the headscarf in primary schools, a measure that is likely to be challenged as discriminatory in the constitutional court.

The bill passed with the support of the governing center-right People's Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Almost all of the opposition voted against it.

Read more: Austria's controversial 'burqa ban,' a year on 

To avoid the impression that it targets Muslims, the text refers to any "ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head."

The government said late Wednesday that the patka head covering worn by Sikh boys or the Jewish yarmulke would not be affected because the law refers to head garments that "cover all of the hair or large parts of it." Exceptions are made for head coverings for medical reasons or protection against rain or snow.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Uncovering head coverings

In much of the Western world today, the word headscarf is often automatically associated with those worn by women for religious reasons, especially Muslim women. Yet the idea and practice of covering one's head with cloth transcends religious, cultural and geographic categories. The show "Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf" at Vienna's Weltmuseum (World Museum) puts headscarf diversity on display.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

The headscarf in Christianity

In Christianity the veil is seen as a sign of virginity and modesty. On the left, a 2008 painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, shows the Virgin Mary wearing a starry blue veil. The Bible considers women's hair immoral and calls on them to cover it when praying — though some wear head coverings at all times. Right, a photograph of a Christian woman taken in Turkey in 1886.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Scarves for women and men

The Weltmuseum's exhibition includes not only artwork in which the headscarf figures, but also various headscarves themselves from around the world. And it's not just women's headscarves being shown; men's are on display, too. Left is a Tunisian bridal veil from the mid-20th century, while the headscarf on the right with a double eagle design is for male members of a religious order in Guatemala.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Desert coverings for men

This photograph taken by the Viennese photographer Ludwig Gustav Alois Zöhrer shows a Tuareg man wearing the traditional face coverings of the North African nomadic pastoralists. The scarf, often indigo, is believed to keep away evil spirits. It is an important rite of passage into manhood when an adolescent male begins to wear it. Women, in contrast, do not usually cover their faces.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

A personal undressing

The various coverings worn by some Muslim women are often debated. Nilbar Güres tackles the theme in her 6-minute-long video "Soyunma/Undressing" (2006). In it, she unwraps layers of headscarves given to her by personally significant women, whose names she calls out. It is an autobiographical act that emphasizes how Muslim women, veiled or not, "foremost represent their individual selves."

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Abstracted depictions

The Vienna exhibition also includes items that examine head coverings in an abstracted manner. This silver gelatin print by Austrian photographer Tina Lechner, entitled "Xiao," recalls the back of a woman's head covered by crinkly fabric that drapes down. Lechner is known for her sculptural-based photography that often examines cultural constructions of femininity in a quasi-surreal manner.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Suzanne Jongmans' old-new veil

At first glance, Jongmans' photo "Mind over Matter — Julie, Portrait of a Lady" could be mistaken for von der Weyden's mid-15th century Dutch masterpiece "Portrait of a Lady." But look closely: The sitter's veil is made of packing materials, her ring is a can lid, and her bodice is held closed by a single sewing pin. Jongmans' use of recycled materials reflects on how we gauge value and beauty.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

From conservatism to emancipation

In pre-WWII authoritarian Austria, a woman wearing a headscarf with the traditional Dirndl dress was seen as rooted, practical and patriotically conservative. By the 1950s, however, the headscarf had transformed into a luxury item. Often made of silk and featuring prints, it embodied female elegance and emancipation. Above, the 1st-prize entry for a 1964 fashion competition features a headscarf.

'Veiled, Unveiled: The headscarf' uncovers head coverings

Haute couture coverings

Since 2003 Austrian designer Susanne Bisovsky has been known for her "Viennese Chic" collections: billowing lace and floral-filled creations drawing heavily on historic Austrian fashion and designed for the modern Viennese lady. Her 2018 collection (above) was designed especially for the Weltmuseum's show and features impressive headpieces. "Veiled, Unveiled" runs until February 26, 2019.

Signal 'against political Islam'

Practicing Muslim girls usually begin wearing a headscarf at puberty, and the governing parties have admitted the law is intended for Muslim girls.

ÖVP lawmaker Rudolf Taschner said the law was meant to "free girls from submission," while FPÖ education spokesman Wendelin Mölzer said it was about sending a signal "against political Islam" and promoting integration. 

Read more: Austrian state plans 'Ten Commandments' for refugees

Former Social Democrat Party education minister, Sonja Hammerschmid, accused the government of trying to make headlines instead of resolving integration or education issues.

Austria's official Muslim community organization, IGGÖ, has said it would legally challenge the "destructive" law that "discriminates exclusively against Muslims."

The ÖVP and FPÖ formed a coalition in 2017 on a strong anti-immigration platform.

Related Subjects

The law was passed as Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan. 

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Yarmulke

European Jews started wearing the yarmulke, or kippa, in the 17th and 18th centuries, turning the skullcap into a religious symbol. Pious Jews are expected to cover their heads, but the fabric isn't that important, and a hat or scarf is acceptable, too. Jewish Halacha law requires men and boys to cover their head when they pray, visit a synagogue or a Jewish cemetery or study the religion.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Miter

The miter is the ceremonial headdress worn by bishops, mainly in the Roman-Catholic Church. It goes back to the 11th century, with the tall, peaked hat deeply cleft on the sides and adorned with two ribbons at the back symbolizing the Old and the New Testaments.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Dastar

Members of the Sikh faith, a monotheistic religion founded in India's northern Punjab region in the 15th century, wear a dastar. A dastar is usually worn by men, with orange being a popular color. Underneath the cloth headwear, which is re-knotted every morning, Sikh men let their hair grow freely.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Chador

In Farsi, the word chador means "tent," and that is what this garment worn by observant Muslim women in some parts of the Middle East resembles. Usually black, it covers a woman from the head down, hiding the shape of the body, revealing only the face. The chador is worn over a woman's regular clothing.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Nun's veil

Nuns almost always wear a distinctive veil to complete their religious garment, the habit. Novices' veils are white, while professed nuns usually wear a black veil, or one in their habit's color. Depending on the religious order, veils come in different sizes and shapes. Some are elaborate and cover the woman's entire head; others are simply pinned to the sister's hair.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Headscarf

Is a woman's headscarf a religious headdress, or a symbol of oppression? In the West in particular, that continues to be a matter of heated debate. It is certainly the most well-known female head covering. Turkish women (as in this photo) tie headscarves differently from women in Arabic countries.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Sheitel

The ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York has strict rules for married women, who are required to shave their hair and wear a wig, the "sheitel." In her 2012 bestseller memoir "Unorthodox," US author Deborah Feldman describes growing up in the ultra-religious group.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Birett

A bit of cloth, strips of cardboard and a tassel — voila, the birett, a head covering worn by Roman Catholic priests since the 13th century. In the Netherlands, Germany, Britain and France, the hat has four corners. In many other countries, it has three.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Birett

A bit of cloth, strips of cardboard and a tassle — voila, the birett, a head covering worn by Roman Catholic priests since the 13th century. In the Netherlands, Germany, Britain and France, the hat has four corners. In many other countries, it has three. If you remember the character Don Camillo (played by French actor Fernandel in a series of films in the 1950s and '60s), you know the hat!

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Tagelmust

The cotton scarf that can be up to 15 meters long is worn by Tuareg Berber Muslim men throughout western Africa. The tagelmust covers the head and is pulled over the mouth and nose against wind-born sand in the desert. The turban-style headdress is worn by adult men only. When indigo blue, the tagelmust's dye can rub off on the skin, hence the Tuareg being called the "blue men of the desert."

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Shtreimel

The Jewish shtreimel hat is made of velvet and has a wide fur trim, usually sable. Married men wear the hat on Jewish holidays and for religious festivities. The eye-catching headgear originated in Hasidic communities in southeastern Europe, a tradition that became nearly extinct in Europe after the Holocaust.

Yarmulke, mitra or veil: religious head coverings across the globe

Hats and bonnets

The Amish are a conservative Christian group in North America that originated in the tradition of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland and southern Germany. The first Amish fled to the US in the early 18th century to escape religious persecution. They live simple lives, and shun modern technology and conveniences. The women wear plain bonnets; the men wear straw or felt hats.

cw/cmk (AFP, dpa, Krone)

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