Laws banning religious symbols and clothing for teachers and other civil servants in parts of Germany mainly target and violate the rights of Muslim women who wear the headscarf, a report published Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The 67-page report analyzed the human rights implications of the ban, in force in half of the 16 German states, and suggested that it discriminates against Muslim women, excluding them from public sector employment as some women have given up their careers or left Germany.
"These laws in Germany clearly target the headscarf, forcing women who wear it to choose between their jobs and their religious beliefs," the report said. "They discriminate on the grounds of both gender and religion and violate these women's human rights."
The laws in question were all introduced in the last five years, following a 2003 Constitutional Court ruling that restrictions on religious dress are only permissible if explicitly laid down in law, the report said.
Although none of the laws explicitly target the headscarf they allow some exemptions for Christian and "Western" cultural traditions, which HRW said was just as oppressive as countries that force women to wear the headscarf, or hijab in Arabic.
"The claim that these restrictions don't discriminate doesn't stand up," the report said, "In practice, the only people affected by them are Muslim women who wear the headscarf."
HRW recommended that the eight states where a ban is in force should repeal the laws. Germany is home to three million Muslims and has biggest Turkish community outside Turkey.
"Allah or work?"
Female teachers refusing to remove their headscarf have been reprimanded and in some cases dismissed, the report said, citing testimony from dozens affected by the ban.
The reported said that teachers had offered to wear alternatives to the headscarf, such as large hats or to tie the scarves in atypical styles, but were rejected.
"To renounce the headscarf is very difficult. On the first day I 'disguised' myself in the school toilet. When a colleague spoke to me, I broke down in tears," said one woman identified in the report as Rabia.
"My son asked me, 'what is more important, Allah or work?' I answered him that it is complicated," she added.
The headscarf has been the subject of heated political debate across Europe and including Turkey where there have been several appeals filed to overturn a ban on university students wearing the headscarf.
Earlier this month Norway reversed a decision to allow female police officers to wear the headscarf following massive criticism of the ruling.
In May last year, Denmark's far-right People's Party launched a campaign against judges wearing headscarves in court and said: "There is no way we will accept this symbol of tyranny," a party spokesman was quoted by AFP as saying.
Debates are still raging in Italy and France, where a law was passed in 2004 banning headscarves and other religious symbols from French state schools.