Capital Sofia
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 359
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .bg
Currency Lev (1EUR = 1.95BGN)
Land Area 110,993 sq km
Population 7.5 million
Language Bulgarian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Islamic Headscarves in Legal Limbo: the Controversy over Religious Symbols in Bulgaria’s Public Schools

By Professor Kristen Ghodsee*

Editor’s note: In this new article, contributor Dr. Kristen Ghodsee explores the intricacies of Bulgaria’s current debate on head scarves in schools.

The controversy over banning Islamic headscarves in public schools has, until now, largely focused on the situations in France and Turkey where secular governments are carefully trying to maintain a thick wall between church and state. In 2006 this controversy hit home in Bulgaria: the EU member state with the largest Muslim minority (estimated between 13-15%). Complaints regarding discrimination against Islamic religious symbols were filed with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination, the national body that deals with human rights violations. The Commission’s decisions in two key cases as to whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in schools have created a legal limbo wherein the state has abdicated its responsibility for interpreting the Bulgarian constitution. Instead, individual headmasters are now allowed to make their own policy regarding religious tolerance in public institutions.

In the first case, two high school students were forbidden to wear headscarves to the Karl Marx Professional Economics secondary school in the southern Bulgarian city of Smolyan. A heated national debate was ignited as two girls challenged a decision of their school’s headmaster. The girls claimed that their rights were violated because they wanted to obtain a secular education in economics while as devout Muslims also continue to wear Islamic headscarves in the classroom.

One of the two girls had been already wearing her headscarf to school for at least a year without incident, but when a second student decided to come to school with her hair covered, the headmaster told both girls that they could not attend classes with headscarves, because their specific headgear was not part of the school uniform.

According to the headmaster the girls knew of the mandatory uniform requirements before they applied to the school and noted that Bulgarian schools were secular, so religious symbols were thus not allowed on campus. In her view, girls that insisted on displaying religious symbols had an alternative – the government of Bulgaria accredited three Islamic secondary schools where wearing of a headscarf was encouraged and where the girls could obtain a religious education (on full scholarship) if they so chose.

The girls refused to remove their headscarves, and filed a complaint with the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education, which in turn upheld the headmaster’s decision, reiterating that Bulgarian education was secular and the girls should not be allowed to attend classes unless they conformed to the school’s uniform policy.

A local Islamic non-governmental organization, the Union for Islamic Development and Culture, took up the case and filed a complaint on behalf of the girls with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination. Since the Commission was headed by a Muslim-Bulgarian of ethnic Turkish heritage, the girls (who were Slavic Muslims, or Pomaks) and the NGO were quite confident that they would win their case. However, the political leadership of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (an ethnic Turkish political party represented in the government at the time) did not support the Islamic NGO, and the Commission found against the girls and fined all parties involved. Both the school and the regional inspectorate were fined for allowing the girls to wear their headscarves to school during the period when the case was being adjudicated, and the Islamic NGO was fined for “inciting discrimination” by bringing the case forward to begin with.

In its written decision issued in July 2006, the Commission stated that Islamic headscarves were religious symbols and that Bulgarian schools were secular, noting that the “ … complainant had gone beyond the limits of tolerance, requesting a solution that would actually result in unequal treatment and direct discrimination of all other students, irrespective of their religion.”

It also cited a key paragraph from a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which advises states “… to protect women against violations of their rights in the name of religion and to promote and fully implement gender equality. States must not accept any religious or cultural relativism of women’s human rights… They must fight against religiously motivated stereotypes of female and male roles from an early age, including in schools.”

The complaint ignited a national controversy, and the media in Bulgaria sensationalized the headscarf case. To some, the case was evidence that radical Islamic sects were infiltrating the country and trying to destabilize the precarious postsocialist ethnic peace that characterized Christian-Muslim relations in the country despite its proximity to Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

A key point in this line of reasoning was that the members of the Union for Islamic Development and Culture, the NGO that filed the complaint on behalf of the two girls, had been educated in Jordan and had links Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia.  It was argued that they were attempting to introduce a “foreign” type of Islam that was not traditional to the country.

Many were suspicious of the idea that it was mandatory for Muslim women and girls to cover their heads since the vast majority of Bulgarian Muslims were ethnically Turkish, and very few Turkish women (particularly girls of school age) were expected to wear a headscarf.  Indeed, the Chief Mufti’s office in Sofia (theoretically the governing body of the Bulgarian Muslim minority), had also refused to support the complaint of the Smolyan NGO and actively discouraged further complaints, fearing that they would result in increased discrimination against Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.

After the first headscarf case in 2006, there was a suggestion by the Ministry of Education that the Bulgarian parliament should pass a law along the lines of the French legislation prohibiting the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in schools, but nothing happened. Then the Ministry of Education issued a verbal order banning headscarves and threatening fines to all headmasters that allowed girls wearing Islamic headscarves to attend classes.

The second major complaint to be filed with the Parliamentary Commission for Protection from Discrimination on February 23rd, 2007 came from three tenth-graders from the village of Gyovren attending the Professional Еlectro-technology Secondary School in Devin, a city just east of Smolyan. Тhe three girls had just recently began wearing their headscarves, and were keen to continue their secular education while remaining modest and covered.

What seems to have happened in the Devin case is that the headmaster called the girls into his office and warned them that there was a verbal order from the Ministry of Education that they were not allowed to wear headscarves in school. Although he did not make them take their headscarves off, he did warn that in the event of an official written order, they would have to comply and remove their head coverings or they would not be allowed to attend the school. The girls continued to attend school wearing their headscarves, and did not miss any classes or exams after this meeting with the headmaster, but they filed a discrimination complaint against him preemptively, assuming that the relevant authorities would eventually issue the written order.

During the hearings for the case, the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education stated that the girls should not be allowed to wear religious symbols to secular schools and that the Devin headmaster had failed in implementing this rule. Because of this, the Commission would not take the complaint into consideration, finding that there was no discrimination since the girls were still attending school in their headscarves at the time of the meeting.

According to the Commission the key issue hinged on the fact that the Devin secondary school did not have a uniform requirement. Because it did not have a uniform requirement, the Devin school was apparently not under the obligation to implement the verbal order of the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Education about the prohibition of headscarves in public schools. According to the Commission, the right to education and religious freedom had not been violated.

In the Devin case the Commission for Protection from Discrimination would not recognize the prohibition of headscarves based on the precedent set by their own decision regarding the 2006 Smolyan school case. The lack of clarity on the issue created a situation in which there were different policies at different schools and no clear guidelines for students as to whether or not they could wear headscarves to class.

Thus, in schools with uniform requirements, the school headmasters had a duty to uphold the ban on religious symbols, but if the school had no uniform requirement, then the students were free to wear what they liked. Yet at the same time the decision as to whether a school has a mandatory uniform requirement is decided exclusively by the headmaster. This means that any individual headmaster could institute a mandatory uniform policy at his/her school specifically with the purpose of prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves.

The number of girls wearing an Islamic headscarf to school began to increase after 2006, particularly after these cases garnered such national attention. In the Smolyan school case, the two girls were almost instantaneous celebrities, being interviewed by the national newspapers as well as on the radio and on television. Both girls were quite articulate and framed the headscarf issue as one of personal choice and religious freedom; both claimed that they were doing something which hurt no one and which reflected their inner commitment to Islam.

This and other demonstrations have had a lasting effect in the Smolyan region, and it is likely that many young Muslim women are beginning to wear the headscarf as much as a political symbol or fashion statement as a religious one. As a consequence, some local authorities may have realized that prohibiting headscarves might actually be giving girls more incentive to wear them, and so have been hesitant to take a stand against them.

In a more recent development, the regional mufti of Smolyan announced in June 2010 that Muslim women in Smolyan should be allowed to take their new passport pictures with their headscarves on. The mufti claimed that he had received numerous calls from local Muslim women asking if it was prohibited for them to be uncovered in their identity documents. This once again instigated a public debate about whether the Bulgarian Muslims were asking to be placed “above the law,” since European Union standards require that all Bulgarian passports be issued with photos containing certain biometric data.

Once again, fault lines appeared between the Pomaks and Turkish Muslim minorities in Bulgaria. Within days of the Smolyan mufti’s announcement, an MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedom and the regional Mufti of Kardzhali (a region of Bulgaria with a large Turkish minority) announced that they did not support the statement of the Smolyan mufti.

Although they admitted that women should be allowed to wear headscarves for religious reasons, these reasons should not take precedence over all other considerations. “The headscarf in Islam is not a fashion. It is Allah’s command. But there is the Constitution of Bulgaria, which is in the EU, and all Bulgarian citizens should comply with it. So Muslim women who cover yourselves, please be kind and do not put yourself above the law,” the Mufti of Kardzhali said in a public statement.

In the end, the women agreed to have their pictures taken in accordance with the biometric requirements of the EU- especially after it became apparent that they would not be able to travel within the European Union if they had passport photos with their headscarves on.

Although there has not yet been any national legislation regarding the headscarf in Bulgaria, either in schools or with regard to identity documents, the issue remains a divisive one, not only between Bulgarian Christians and Muslims, but also between Bulgaria’s “traditional” Muslim communities and a newly emerging cohort of “orthodox” Muslims.


*Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, and has been conducting ethnographic research on Bulgaria for the last fourteen years. She is the author of two books on post-socialist Bulgaria; The Red Riviera (Duke University Press 2005), and Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2009), which won the 2010 Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS) Heldt Prize for best book in the field of Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian women’s studies.

Professor Ghodsee’s forthcoming book, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism, will be published by Duke University Press in fall 2011).