Secularism and Human Rights: A Contextual Analysis of Headscarves, Religious Expression, and Women’s Equality Under International Law

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This Article advocates an innovative contextual approach to assessing the international legality of bans in public schools on “modest” garments claimed to be required by religious beliefs for Muslim women. Too often this has been considered solely a question of religious freedom. This paper advocates the reinsertion of gender equality into the heart of the debate. To obtain results most conducive to reconciling the human right to religious freedom and the human right to gender equality, it examines restrictions on headscarves and veils in a novel matrix of factors, including pressures on individual women to wear or not wear such gear, the impact on other female students, fundamentalist organizing targeting education, Islamophobia, and the multiple meanings of veiling. Applying the contextual approach, this Article argues that the European Court of Human Rights ruled correctly in Şahin v. Turkey when it upheld Istanbul University’s ban on headscarves in context. The Article rebuts the sharp criticism of this decision from some human rights groups and asserts that secularism is vital for the implementation of women’s human rights.