Government halts hijab initiative

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Norway’s government minister in charge of culture, Hadia Tajik, has been handed a report by a commission recommending that police and judges in Norway be allowed to use religious head coverings, such as a hijab or turban. Tajik immediately made it clear the government would not change its position that currently bans such religious expression.

Minister of Culture Hadia Hadjik received recommendations on religious inclusion this week, but seems unlikely to enact some of them. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet

Minister of Culture Hadia Hadjik received recommendations on religious inclusion this week, but seems unlikely to enact some of them. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet

The 15-member commission, headed by Pastor Sturla Stålsett who also heads the humanitarian group Kirkens bymisjon, was formed by Tajik’s predecessor Anniken Huitfeldt in 2010 to make proposals aimed at protecting religious freedom. Tajik noted the commission has “a broad mandate” and therefore took up the issue of using religious symbols in combination with uniforms. It also tackled such issues as circumcision and the legality of church weddings.

“The fact is that the government handled (the head covering) issue in 2009 and took a stand: It is not allowed to use religious symbols in connection with a police uniform,” Tajik said at a press conference Monday. She noted that the hijab issue was also discussed at the Labour Party’s annual national meeting in 2011: “The government’s standpoint was confirmed and I can’t see that we’re going to change it in the near future.”

She was backed by Labour’s justice spokesman in Parliament, Jan Bøler. “I maintain the same as what was approved at our national meeting, and by the Parliament: It is important that those who carry out authority on behalf of the state appear completely neutral,” Bøler told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. “Then they can’t use hijab or other religious garments, but must have completely neutral clothing.”

Pastor Sturla Stålsett presented several proposals approved by a majority on the commission, involving everything from religious expression and tolerance to the legality of marriage ceremonies. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet

Pastor Sturla Stålsett presented several proposals approved by a majority on the commission, involving everything from religious expression and tolerance to the legality of marriage ceremonies. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet

Prableen Kaur, a sikh and high-profile member of Labour’s youth group, disagrees. She has said that her dream of becoming a judge one day may be impossible, since sikhs can’t wear turbans with their judges robes. She was happy for the support from the commission, even though it was quickly squashed by Tajik.

“The commission sees that society is beginning to be more diverse and that there will be a need to have a framework that includes diverse groups,” Kaur told Aftenposten. “That will reflect society in a more correct manner.”

Twelve members of the commission including Stålsett had concluded that judges and police, for example, should be able to use religious headgear. Three members voted against the proposal. The minority on the commission, however, has the majority of politicians behind them.

“We see this proposal as moot,” said Hans Frode Asmyhr of the opposition Progress Party, stressing that Norwegian civil servants shall have neutral uniforms unadorned with any religious symbols. The head of the court administration, Tor Langbach, said there are no rules forbidding a judge from using headgear.

“So far this hasn’t been an issue for us,” Langbach said. “But there are a lot of clever lawyers with minority background coming out of university, so there likely will be more discussion.”

On other issues, the  commission stressed freedom of religion in Norway, that all religious groups should receive the same proportionate amounts of state support and that all Norwegians must expect to be exposed to various faiths and religious lifestyles. It also proposed that circumcision be covered by the state health care service.

A proposal to demand civil marriage ceremonies for all, with only religious blessings of marriage,  also appears unlikely to gain any momentum. The government minister in charge of administrative issues, Rigmor Aasrud, said she won’t support any proposal that would take away religious organizations’ right to marry couples. She also said she was skeptical towards proposals that involve more state bureaucracy.

While the commissions’ proposals already are setting off debate, none are expected to result in proposed laws until the next session of Parliament begins in the fall, after national elections in September.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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