June 24, 2010 / 2:38 PM / 9 years ago

Headscarf ban upsets devout Muslims in Kosovo

PRISTINA (Reuters) - The leader of a protest against Kosovo’s ban on headscarves in public schools says devout Muslims could resort to violence to get their way, though Islam is not central to the lives of most Kosovo Albanians.

Kosovo Muslim women take part in a protest against the government's decision to ban pupils from wearing Muslim headscarves in public schools in Pristina June 18, 2010. Around 90 percent of Kosovo's population are Muslims though it remains a largely secular country. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

The June 18 rally in the capital Pristina by 5,000 women in headscarves, supported by some bearded men, was held after a few headscarf-clad girls were prevented from entering their schools.

It was an extraordinary sight in Kosovo, whose 2 million population is 90 percent Muslim but mostly secular in lifestyle.

The protest leader was Halil Kastrati, who obtained an Islamic studies degree in Damascus and now heads the Orphans charity in Pristina, which he says gets no Islamic funding. He wears normal Western clothes and says he admires the West.

“We will use all peaceful means to reach our goal unless they force us to act in a different way,” said Kastrati, who married a Christian woman who later converted to Islam.

“If there is no solution, we may organise violent protests and even block roads,” Kastrati, 35, who wears normal Western attire, told Reuters in his office decorated with flags of the United States, Britain and NATO.

The Kosovo education ministry banned religious garb in primary and high schools late last year, prompting heated debate about religious liberties in the country, a former province of Serbia that declared independence two years ago.

“This decision is in line with the country’s constitution,” said Education Minister Enver Hoxhaj, referring to a clause stipulating that Kosovo “is a secular state and is neutral in matters of religious beliefs”.

Hoxhaj added: “If there are citizens who think our decision is not in line with the constitution, then they have to ask the constitutional court and we will respect the court’s decision.”

While few countries ban headscarves in schools, analysts say Kosovo did so to ensure respect for the secular constitution in a small, fragile young country and underline that it belongs to the West and aspires to join the EU and NATO eventually.

DEBATE OVER IDENTITY

Jahja Drancolli, a religion professor at Pristina University, said that permitting headscarves would undermine the identity of Kosovo where around 70 percent of Muslims do not practice their religion.

“They can wear the uniforms at their homes or religious sites but not in schools or universities,” Drancolli said. “These people are misused by different organizations and countries with different interests.”

“Based on religious tolerance in Kosovo..., I don’t see how this society would turn violent in the future,” he added.

Asked for comment, the European Union representative office in Pristina said the issue was a matter for local authorities.

OTTOMAN EMPIRE BROUGHT ISLAM TO BALKANS

Most ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, as elsewhere in the Balkans, turned to Islam under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which promoted conversion by imposing high taxes on non-Muslims.

Many of them, however, continued to practice Christianity at home and were dubbed “Catholics in hiding”. Today, most Kosovo Muslims do not consider religion a vital part of their identity.

But some, such as Adelina Berisha, a 19-year-old sociology student at Pristina University, where headscarves are allowed, insist on preserving their religiosity in public.

“We are four girls in our class wearing headscarves and we don’t have problems with other students,” said Berisha, whose long dress covers all body parts except for her face and hands.

“But we are not happy because our sisters in primary and secondary schools are not allowed.”

In neighbouring Albania, where 70 percent of the people are Muslim, headscarves are also banned in primary and high schools but allowed in universities. Those who want to wear headscarves must go to private schools.

In Bosnia, where Bosnian Muslims represent the largest ethnic group, headscarves are allowed both in schools and universities. The freedom to wear them attracted many female students from Turkey and other countries to study at Turkish-funded universities in the capital Sarajevo.

Kosovo authorities allowed the Roman Catholic Church to build a huge cathedral in Pristina for the 4 percent of Kosovo Albanians who are Catholics, in what analysts termed a sign of gratitude to the West for expelling Serbian forces from Kosovo and backing its independence from Serbia in 2008.

Kosovo Muslims do not oppose the cathedral but some, such as Kastrati, think the authorities should allow them to build a big mosque and an Islamic centre in the capital.

Kosovo has so far been recognised by 69 countries, mainly in Western Europe, the United States and a few Muslim states.

Additional reporting by Benet Koleka in Tirana and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; editing by Mark Heinrich

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