Austria's headscarf ban sensationalizes a marginal issue, Muslim groups say

Many noted that most girls don't begin wearing the garment at so young an age.

May 16, 2019, 4:39 PM

BERLIN -- Six months after banning headscarves in Austrian kindergartens, the country's ruling right-wing government has gone a step further and prohibited girls under the age of 11 from wearing the Muslim covering in primary schools.

The ban, which Austrian lawmakers approved in a vote late on Wednesday, was proposed by the country’s right-wing coalition government, which is made up of the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPO) and center-right People’s Party (OVP).

Both parties campaigned on hard-line immigration policies during the federal elections in October 2017, and banning the headscarf and reducing benefits to migrants were among the campaign promises that brought both parties into power.

Wendelin Mölzer, the FPO's education spokesman, said in a statement that the ban sent “a signal against political Islam.”

Yet, Muslim groups say the draft law sensationalizes a marginal issue and plays on citizens' fears.

Nearly all opposition parliamentary members voted against it, and Austria’s official Muslim Community organization, the IGGO, immediately announced plans to challenge the ban in Austria's constitutional court.

Typically, young Muslim women make the decision to wear a headscarf when they are teenagers and after they hit puberty.

The ban violates “many fundamental human rights, including freedom of thought, freedom of religion and the right for parents to raise their children,” Rusen Timur Aksak, a spokesperson for IGGO, told ABC News on Thursday.

The stated goal of the law was to promote integration in Austrian schools, and the ban applies to any “ideologically or religiously characterized clothing” that covers the head, according to a statement by Austria’s National Council.

But it specifically targets Islamic garments worn by women, and the Jewish kippah and the patkah, a head covering worn by Sikh boys, were not banned.

The Freedom Party was founded by a former officer in the SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party. Along with the center-right People’s Party of Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the FPO has capitalized on the fears of economic and ideological change after Austria received 150,000 asylum applications -- equal to about 2 percent of its population -- as migrants flowed into Europe from the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Last month, an FPO politician caused an uproar after he published a poem that seemed to compare migrants to rats and used imagery widely associated with anti-Jewish propaganda pushed by Nazis before and during the Holocaust. The politician, Christian Schilcher, later resigned from the party and gave up his role as deputy mayor of the village Braunau am Inn, which is also the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.