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Dahlab v. Switzerland

15 January 2001


Primary school teacher prohibited from wearing Islamic headscarf (hijab) in the performance of her teaching duties. Notably, there were no complaints from parents of the teacher’s pupils.


Application found to be inadmissible. The interference with the teacher’s freedom to manifest her religion (Art. 9(2) ECHR) was held to be justifiable and proportionate as a measure to protect the freedoms of others, namely the schoolchildren.

Key jurisprudence

  • Court was concerned with “the impact that a powerful external symbol such as the wearing of a headscarf may have on the freedom of conscience and religion of very young children.”
  • The headscarf was held to be “hard to square with the principle of gender equality” and “might have some kind of proselytising effect”.
  • Therefore the Court found it “difficult to reconcile the wearing of an Islamic headscarf with the message of tolerance, respect for others and, above all, equality and non-discrimination.”


Unfortunately, the Court labelled the Islamic headscarf a “powerful external symbol”, and chose to regard it as being irreconcilable with gender equality. This is regrettable, as the Court failed to consider Islamic women to wearing the headscarf as a means of achieving gender equality, and instead imposed its own interpretation without any evidence.

Furthermore, the ECtHR followed the view of the headscarf as a “powerful external symbol” in Sahin, which involved a prohibition of the headscarf on university premises. As noted in the dissenting opinion to Sahin, the Court’s judgment failed to draw a distinction between the ease with which very young children (Dahlab) and university students (Sahin) are influenced.

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