Macedonia: Debate on headscarves in schools

Macedonia: Debate on headscarves in schools

Open displays of faith among Macedonia's rival Christian and Muslim youths are stoking religious tensions that have smouldered since the fall of communist Yugoslavia.

The collapse of the communist federation in the early 1990s saw a revival of interest in religion among Macedonia's mainly Slavic Orthodox Christians and predominantly Sunni Islam ethnic Albanians.

Nowadays, Christian youths openly attend church services, fast and wear crosses, while Muslim girls are donning headscarves at schools even though the custom is outlawed.

The use of religious symbols is becoming more obvious at schools, notably in the capital Skopje and the western town of Tetovo, an ethnic Albanian stronghold.

The issue came to a head early in 2009, when a Tetovo school principal, Ljatif Ismaili, was sacked after banning a girl from entering class with a headscarf several times.

"At high school, other students found it strange at the beginning, but later got used to it," says Shpresa, an ethnic Albanian student from Bogovinje village near Tetovo. "I will wear it until I get married, and if my husband tells me to take it off, I will do so.”

Macedonia has long been dogged by ethnic tensions related to its Albanian minority, who make up most of the country's Muslim population -- which represents about 30 percent of the country's 2.2 million residents. The others are Turks, Roma and Macedonian Muslims known as Torbeses.

In 2001, an ethnic Albanian rebellion brought Macedonia to the edge of civil war. The seven-month uprising was put to an end with the internationally-brokered peace accord that brought more rights to the ethnic Albanian community.

Education Minister Pero Stojanovski admits the issue of headscarves in schools is "very sensitive.”

"In the past few years, we have seen ethnic intolerance in some schools, but we also have schools which are an excellent example of multi-ethnic life," Stojanovski tells AFP. "The law clearly states any religious activity is prohibited in schools, and that is why we have separated religious education from religious activities.”

But Stojanovski stresses "rules of conduct" should not be interpreted as "discrimination.”

Namik Xhaferi of Tetovo's Islamic community says the cross is a religious symbol, while headscarves are not only that, but also a part of expressing respect for Islam.

"No-one should exclude young women of Islamic faith (from schools) because of that," he insists.

The problem first emerged soon after Macedonia's independence in 1991, when a Muslim girl attended school with her head covered for the first time.

It resurfaced when a law on religion at school entered into force in September 2008, sparking a vivid debate before the Supreme Court declared wearing headscarves to class is unconstitutional.

But the public attorney's office says "students have constitutional and legal rights for freedom of religious expression," according to spokeswoman Uranija Pirovska.

In the absence of proper monitoring, however, schools have imposed their own regulations, making the issue even more complicated.

It is estimated that up to three percent of female students wear headscarves or other Islamic apparel at high schools and universities.


Source: Expatica (English)

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