The Czech Republic has just experienced its first controversy over Muslim headwear. Two young women studying to become nurses at a Prague school left the institution after the headmistress refused to allow them to wear headscarves in class.
Reports on whether students should be allowed to wear the hijab was something Czechs were used to seeing on the evening news from France. Now the issue has come much closer to home. A Prague nursing school hit the headlines when it refused the request of two foreign students for them to be allowed to cover their heads in class. The school’s headmistress responded with a curt refusal. Twenty-five-year-old Nasra, who wishes to remain in anonymity, walked out the next day. She explained what happened to Czech Television.
“She asked me – if you want to be in school then remove your scarf. Then I told her –I cannot go against my religion, I shall not wear my scarf the way I should, but I shall just cover my hair. But she said to me no, your head must remain uncovered.”
Twenty-three year old Zelmina decided to try and meet the conditions laid down by the school, but after a few weeks, she too gave up and left.
“I could not concentrate on my studies, I could not do anything because I was always thinking that something was missing. Why am I sitting here without my scarf? I have my rights, I have my religion.”
Challenged by the media to explain her decision, the headmistress, Ivanka Kohoutova, stood her ground.
“We would not allow students to sit in class with caps or hats on. The school rules do not allow that and anyone who wishes to study at our school must adhere to those rules.”
The headmistress claims the controversy is not about religious freedoms but about adhering to the rules of a given institution, arguing that the school has dozens of foreign students from around the world who have not previously had any complaints. Moreover she claims that a nursing school requires above standard commitments in many ways.
“Our students go to hospitals for training sessions where they naturally care for patients, and patients have their rights as well. Not to mention the fact that there is the question of hygiene to be considered.”
Although the case caused a stir, the Education Ministry said there was no reason for it to interfere on the argument that since Czech legislation does not ban headscarves or other religious symbols it is up to individual schools to set their own norms.
After their one-and-only interview for Czech Television during which they did not appear on camera, Nasra and Zelmina are no longer willing to talk to reporters. They say they have been put off by some hateful and xenophobic debates which appeared on social networks in connection with the case.
Although both have now moved on, they are not giving up and are getting help and advice from OPU a Prague-based, non-profit organization which provides assistance to refugees and migrants. I asked one of its lawyers Michala Cilli how she saw the school’s decision to ban headscarves.
“ The reason given by the director was based on the school’s rules – she said students were obliged to adhere to the school’s social behaviour rules which meant not wearing headscarves in class. In my opinion, you cannot base the reasoning behind this prohibition on rules governing social behaviour. In Article 15 the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religious conviction for all. Also Article 16 guarantees the right to freely manifest one’s religion – the right to wear religious dress or religious symbols is part of this freedom. So I think that really once you have a right to religious freedom and the right to manifest it you have to accept every religion, be it Christianity, Judaism or any other. In this case I think it was a fear of Islam, which may stem from reports in the media, on TV. We are maybe not so used to this community here in the Czech Republic and we are not so open in accepting other cultures and other religions. But I do not think that is the case in each and every school. Another school where one of the girls is now studying (taking a requalification course) is a Catholic which has no problem with her wearing a headscarf. She also has training in hospital where she wears her headscarf as well. So I think it depends on individual people. And some people are not so open and possibly are afraid of something, though I can’t see why, because, as I see it, their presentation of this religious symbol was not aggressive. It was not some kind of propaganda. They did not read the Koran in class. It was just a manifestation of their religion.”
And what about the other young woman?
“She is now working in a place where she can wear a headscarf so there is no problem.”
Are they fighting this in some way? Have they challenged the decision? I understand they have written a complaint to the Ombudsman, is that right?
“Yes, yes, they have. It has not yet been submitted but it will be sent this week. That will be the first step and maybe we will also complain to the Education and Training Inspectorate which can make some kind of inquiry also because our legislation guarantees equal access to education without discrimination. Other steps will be decided later. We have the possibility to take the matter to court as a case of discrimination based on religion, but for the moment we do not want to make a big affair of this. So the first step is a complaint to the Ombudsman and he will make some kind of inquiry and on the basis of that result we will see what we can do.”
This case has received quite a lot of publicity, but is it typical – from you experience with foreign migrants is this something they come up against more often or is it the very first case of its kind in the Czech Republic?
“I don’t think it happens often. Maybe it is not the very first case –there was the case of a Czech citizen – a young kindergarten teacher who converted to Islam and wore a headscarf at work – so it is not the first case of this happening, but maybe it is the first case involving a foreign national, a Muslim living here. But I do not think this happens very often. We work with a lot of foreigners and no one has complained to me about such a problem at school or at the workplace.”