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How will Austria’s new headscarf ban affect Muslims?

With yet another European country outlawing headscarves, a recent study shows its actual impact.

- May 31, 2019

On May 16, Austria’s parliament approved a law banning headscarves in public primary schools. While the ban does not explicitly mention headscarves, it prohibits “ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head.” Representatives of the conservative governing coalition have even gone so far as to frame the law as “a signal against political Islam” and an effort to “free girls from submission.”

This is the most recent prohibition of Islamic clothing, a burgeoning trend across European countries. Austria is the eighth European country to ban headscarves in a government setting and the fourth country to prohibit pupils from covering their hair in schools. Other governments, including Germany’s North-Rhine Westphalia state, are considering similar laws. Despite the increasing ubiquity of headscarf bans, there is little systematic evidence of their impact.

In a recent study, we evaluate the effects of headscarf bans, studying the landmark 2004 French law banning conspicuous religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. Independently of normative or political motivations for such laws, our research suggests that outlawing headscarves in schools actually hinders the economic and social integration of Muslim women.

What do we know about the effects of headscarf bans?

To study the effects of the French law, we focus on two groups of women: those born before 1986 who thus completed secondary school before the law was enacted in 2004; and those born 1986 and later who were in school during the ban’s implementation. For these pre- and post-ban cohorts, we compare Muslim women’s educational and economic outcomes with those of their non-Muslim peers (using France’s labor market survey). Then, we assess the change in the difference in outcomes between Muslim and non-Muslim women for cohorts in school during the law’s enactment compared with cohorts in school before the ban.

On average, Muslim women in France have been worse off than their non-Muslim counterparts. We observe a gap in educational attainment (and other outcomes) between Muslim and non-Muslim women for all cohorts in our data. But if the ban had no effect, the difference in outcomes between Muslim and non-Muslim women would remain unchanged between cohorts born before 1986 — who were not exposed to the 2004 ban — and cohorts born from 1986 onward — who were exposed to the ban.

We find that the gap in secondary school attainment between Muslim and non-Muslim girls more than doubled after the ban. This was partially because of Muslim girls leaving the school system. Their differential rate of dropping out of secondary school increased by 6 percentage points after the ban. Affected cohorts of Muslim girls also took longer to complete secondary education, further depressing their attainment.

This negative educational shock dampened long-term outcomes. After the ban, the employment gap between Muslim and non-Muslim women widened by a third, while the gap in labor force participation widened by a half. Muslim women were also less independent after the ban; on average, they have more children and are more likely to live with their parents.

Why do headscarf bans negatively affect Muslim women?

Such bans increase perceptions of discrimination. The French law singled out Muslim schoolgirls who chose to veil and subjected them to differential treatment because of their mode of dress. Public debate accompanying the passage of the law moreover reinforced Muslim girls’ difference.

Muslim girls felt targeted by the direct changes in schools and the broader anti-Muslim sentiment. Our qualitative fieldwork reveals that this perceived discrimination placed Muslim girls under considerable psychological stress and disrupted their ability or willingness to perform at school — thereby impairing their educational and long-term economic outcomes. Using the social attitudes survey (known as Trajectories and Origins), we show consistent evidence that Muslim women in cohorts affected by the 2004 ban are significantly more likely to report experiencing racism in school and to report lower trust in the French schools.

The second explanation for the negative effects of religious bans is that they cast religion and national identity as incompatible. The French law defined the Muslim headscarf as what Joan Wallach Scott calls a “violation of French secularism, and by implication, a sign of the inherent non-Frenchness of anyone who practiced Islam.”

Until that point, French Muslim girls could readily identify as members of both their religious community (by wearing the headscarf) and their country of birth (France). After the ban, they received the signal that their two identities were incompatible and that one could not be French without embracing the principle of secularity as enshrined in the law.

Some Muslim women were thus alienated from broader French society and chose to retreat into their religious communities. Indeed, we use the Trajectory and Origins survey to show that Muslim women affected by the ban are more likely to identify with their father’s country of origin than with France.

What are the lessons for Austria?

Our analysis of the 2004 French law provides causal evidence that prohibiting religious dress can hinder the social and economic integration of the affected religious community. While religious bans may succeed in their narrower goals (French Muslim women took off the headscarf in the schools, after all), the broader consequences seem to be negative.

Austria’s ban may have an even worse impact on Muslim women because it is more explicitly discriminatory relative to the French ban. The Austrian law explicitly prohibits religiously driven hair covering rather than religious symbols more broadly. Moreover, the Austrian government has stated its intention to exempt Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs, whereas the French law also impacted Sikh and Jewish students — which is a more credible signal that the French government more broadly sought to rid schools of all religious dress. It is possible that by explicitly targeting Islam, Austria’s law may more significantly hinder Muslim women’s economic and social trajectories. At the very least, the negative consequences of France’s law offer a cautionary tale for Austria and other governments considering a headscarf ban.

Aala Abdelgadir is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University.

Vasiliki Fouka is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University. She studies the dynamics of assimilation, with a focus on immigrant groups’ responses to assimilationist policies and to patterns of native discrimination.