The young Kosovo Republic, with an overwhelming Muslim majority but a tradition of moderate Islam and a secular constitution, has joined Tunisia and France in prohibiting girls attending public schools from wearing the headscarf (hijab). As in Turkey, where the ban on headscarves, instituted in the 1920s, has become a matter for judicial controversy, decisions against the headscarf by local and school authorities have produced a legal case and complaints of discrimination.
For now, headscarves cannot be worn on school property in most of Kosovo. A 16-year-old girl, Arjeta Halimi, from the small town of Viti, which includes Albanian Catholics and Christian Orthodox Serbs, was barred from school in January 2009. She was not been allowed to return, although school authorities will permit her to take her final examinations while in hijab. In the meantime, she is studying at home. She also takes three hours of Islamic religious classes each day.
According to local media, the teenager was ordered by the principal and a security guard at her school to remove the scarf or leave the institution's grounds. She opted for the scarf over the schoolhouse, declaring that she had made the decision to cover her hair after five years of religious instruction. Halimi also said her mother wore a headscarf but that her sisters did not. "They are different," she said. She further asserted that other students were allowed to wear Christian crosses, and that she should therefore be permitted to remain in hijab while at classes.
Her case produced a complaint by a local, non-Islamist NGO, the Center for Legal Aid and Regional Development, which claims she is a victim of religious discrimination. A district court found in her favor, but school and municipal authorities in Viti rejected their opinion, and insisted that obtrusive religious symbols could not be worn in public schools.
The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), through a small English-language tabloid published in the republic's capital, Prishtina Insight, said that ten such cases have previously been observed in Kosovo. Three girls were excluded from public schools in the district of Skenderaj, which has been plagued by Islamist ructions, and one from a facility in the capital. But according to Prishtina Insight, the headscarf is allowed in some schools near Viti.
In the Halimi case, the Viti school and municipal authorities are supported by the Kosovo constitution, which this month marked the second anniversary of its adoption. The document defines the republic as a "secular state . . . neutral in matters of religious belief." By holding the line against radical Islam, the Kosovar Albanians are demonstrating greater devotion to Western ideals than the international functionaries, representing the United Nations and the European Union, who have been sent to administer their future.
Wearing of the headscarf may be less provocative to moderate Muslims and non-Muslims than the face-veil or niqab, which, in Christian-majority Western Europe, is now banned in some parts of Belgium, with a law against covering of the face and body (the burqa or abaya) under discussion in France. The headscarf does not present the danger to public security seen in niqab, which masks a woman's identity, and head coverings are also seen on non-Muslim women in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But for many moderate Muslims in Kosovo and elsewhere, girls in headscarves convey an aggressive message that they consider themselves more virtuous and dedicated to faith than others.
Headscarves are rarely seen among the younger generation of Kosovo Albanian women, although their mothers and grandmothers often appear in public with their hair covered and wearing a long overcoat. Modern Kosovo Albanian women pride themselves on their dedication to the latest European fashions, and are apparently seldom harassed about it, notwithstanding recent Wahhabi and other extremist Islamic infiltration.
If the headscarf debate has yet to be resolved in Kosovo, the republic's authorities seem to want their Muslim youth to understand that religion will not be a basis of discrimination--either for or against Islam.