Court: Private school can bar teacher from wearing hijab

Jerusalem court rejects appeal by a Muslim teacher at a school owned by the Archdiocese of Cologne; Nadra Nimri said her rights were violated.

By DAN IZENBERG
September 5, 2010 00:38
3 minute read.
Women wearing hijab in Jerusalem

hijab jerusalem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The Jerusalem District Labor Court last week rejected a temporary appeal by a Muslim teacher at a private Christian school to allow her to continue working after she decided to wear a hijab in class after teaching without one for 27 years.

The prestigious school, known as the Schmidt School for Girls, is run by the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mary Ward Sisters) and owned by the Archdiocese of Cologne. It is located on Nablus Road, near the Damascus Gate.

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The school is open to all denominations and both Christian and Muslim girls study there. It has operated in Jerusalem for 120 years and today is classified as a recognized but unofficial school in the city’s educational system.

The hijab that the teacher, Nadra Nimri, insisted on wearing, covers her head and neck, but not her face.

When Nimri, who taught Arabic and Islam at the school, decided to wear the hijab, she first requested permission and was turned down. Despite the school’s refusal, she showed up for her classes on May 22 wearing the hijab. She was summoned to the office of the principal, Michael Kirsches, who told her she could not teach as long as she was wearing the religious garb. Nimri left the school and did not return for the rest of the school year.

In her petition to the court, she charged that the school had violated the Equal Opportunity in Work Law and the Equal Rights for Women Law.

The school argued that the school’s dress code bans the wearing of the hijab “in order to create uniformity between the students and teachers from Muslim and Christian backgrounds.



Because of this, the students are required to wear school uniforms and the teachers must serve as an example to the students in this context, as well as others.

“Wearing the hijab will harm the pedagogic and educational considerations connected to the character and substance of the school, which belongs to the Christian-Catholic community, and its desire to preserve its special and singular character.”

In their decision, judges Dita Prozhinin, Issar Salovitsky and Uri Biran wrote that although Nimri failed to present sources in Islam ordering the wearing of the hijab, the court was willing to assume there was such a stricture, and that preventing it from being upheld constituted a violation of religious freedom.

Even so, they said, there might be other factors that outweighed this. And, indeed, the court found that the fact that Schmidt was a private school and that studying there was voluntary and not compulsory made the difference.

“Given its status as a private school owned by a religious community recognized by Israel, it determined for itself the dress code that was aimed at strengthening the message of pluralism and mutual respect that the school espouses by the fact that it serves Christians and Muslims, in order to create equality and unity between religions, prevent religious coercion and social pressure and create a friendly atmosphere.

Kirsches told the court that the items of clothing that the students could wear were restricted to those specified in the dress code. The hijab was not among them.

Nimri claimed that the school had made no dress demands of the teachers, but the court rejected this argument. The teachers were also required to uphold the values of the school, which called for no differentiation between Christians and Muslims.

The judges wrote that despite her protestations, Nimri was well aware of this. When she came to the principal to ask for permission to wear it, she offered to cut her teaching position in half and teach only Islamic religion. The principal turned down the offer and continued to refuse to allow her to wear the hijab in school.

The court also rejected the argument that the school rule constituted unlawful discrimination because the ban on the hijab allegedly had nothing to do with Nimri’s obligations as a teacher.

“The rule is logically necessary based on the character and substance of the role of this specific school,” wrote the court. “There is a clear distinction between an official and an unofficial school.

In the first type, freedom of religion would outweigh other considerations and a teacher would be allowed to wear the items of clothing that were representative of his faith. That is not true in this case [of a recognized but unofficial school],” the judges said.

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