Photograph — Public Radio International

The reactions are still coming in following the decision of the European Court of Justice to allow employers ban their employees from wearing the hijab – the Islamic headscarf. The ruling takes into account that the prohibition includes other religious and political symbols.

Regardless of the applause that many politicians in Europe have given the move, it’s hard for the case not to be seen as one of Islamophobia. The steady flow of refugees and migrants from the war-torn states in the Arab region has increased the number of Muslims in Europe.

The case which is the first of its kind in a series of legal disputes over the right for Muslim women to wear the hijab at work came on the eve of the Dutch elections, where Muslim immigration has been a contentious issue and all the agitation in France, ahead of the race to succeed President François Hollande.

The court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute “indirect discrimination” if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.

Lizzie Dearden of The Independent argues that indirect discrimination is permissible if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary.

The ECJ issued a joint judgment in the cases of two women, from France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their hijabs.

“An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” ruling that a company’s wish to project a neutral image was legitimate and allowed internal rules banning political, philosophical or religious symbols.

The first case involved Samira Achbita, a receptionist for Belgian brand of G4S – a London-listed outsourcing and security company when, after three years at the firm she decided she wanted to start wearing a headscarf at work for religious reasons. Achbita was fired in June 2006 for refusing to take off her hijab. The company said she had broken unwritten rules prohibiting religious symbols.

The second involved Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer, who was fired from Micropole, an IT consultancy firm, after a customer complained that his staff had been “embarrassed” by her headscarf while she was on their premises to give advice. She had been told before taking the job that wearing a hijab might pose problems for the company’s customers.

In Achbita’s case, the ECJ followed the advice of a senior legal adviser to the court, who argued that companies should be allowed to have policies banning the wearing of religious and political symbols.

As for Bougnaoui, the court had ruled that she had suffered discrimination, as she had been “professionally competent” and sacked only because she had refused to remove her headscarf.

It really is a rocky situation. Essentially, the ruling puts a restraint on expression through dressing, especially if such dressing is viewed as religious. In a world where people constantly grab onto to faith as a form of identity, such a movement can only add to obstacles women, especially Muslims, face in the work environment.

Elsewhere around Europe, Dutch MPs voted in support of a partial ban on full-face Islamic veils last year, but no law has yet been implemented, while prohibitions have been implemented in countries including France, Belgium, and Bulgaria, and are being considered in Germany.


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