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Czech Republic: Muslim woman complains over nursing school's ban on head coverings

Prague, 27.8.2014 13:57, (ROMEA)
Anna Šabatová on the program
Anna Šabatová on the program "Questions with Václav Moravec"", 23 February 2014 (Photo: Czech Television)

Anna Šabatová, the Czech Republic's Public Defender of Rights (the ombud), is currently reviewing a complaint of discrimination in access to education by a Muslim student who is prevented from wearing her headscarf at school. Given the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation, the ombud has decided not to publish any interim conclusions and will not comment on media reports until the investigation is completed, which she predicts will be by mid-September.

Information has, however, been leaked to the media that Šabatová is evidently leaning toward the side of the nursing school student who has objected to the headscarf ban. The ombud familiarized all parties involved in the case with her opinion and her reasoning at the start of July.    

At that time Šabatová told the parties involved that they had until the end of August to express their views and share any facts with her office that might influence its conclusions. Czech daily Lidové noviny (LN) has reported since then that Šabatová is apparently siding with the student from Somalia who was banned by the High School for Nursing (Střední zdravotnická škola) in Prague from wearing her headscarf there.    

Muslim women use the headscarf or hijab to cover their hair and neck, and Šabatová believes it is discriminatory to ban them from doing so on campus. News server Lidovky.cz says the source for that claim is an internal document on the case that LN has managed to acquire.  

The school justified its ban by saying that all head coverings, not just the hijab, are barred by the school's regulations. Two female students, one from Afghanistan and one from Somalia, have cut short their studies at the school, allegedly because of the ban, and publicized their case last fall.  

The former Somali student then turned to the Public Defender of Rights with her complaint. LN reports that the ombud has concluded that the nursing school indirectly discriminated against the Muslim girl because her headscarf is an expression of her religion.

That same stance is shared by former Education Minister Eduard Zeman, who will take up the position of Education Ombud in mid-September. "If the headscarf is an expression of a certain religion, and if we are in a state where that religion is tolerated, then this is discrimination," Zeman said on Czech Radio's "20 Minutes" program, adding that cases such as this will fall within his purview once he takes office.

Zeman did admit, however, that it is hard to evaluate this case without studying all the materials involved. Šabatová has also criticized the Czech School Inspectorate for its lax approach to the issue.

Deputy Central School Inspector Ondřej Andrys has strongly objected to her accusations of lax procedure. He claims the Inspectorate investigated the case very thoroughly and spent two months in vain trying to meet with the complainants, who eventually completely stopped communicating with them.  

The Inspectorate has received an opinion from the ombud in which she points out the deficiences in their procedure. "We disagree with the substance of those complaints, but we have accepted them because we respect the authority of the Office of the Public Defender of Rights," Andrys said.

Ochrance.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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