Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that employers in EU countries could ban staff from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves if this constituted a “genuine need”. Legal issues aside, what does this decision mean for inclusion, asks Shakil Butt?
The European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) ruling last week permitting employers to ban any political, philosophical or religious sign such as the headscarf is a significant blow to inclusion.
The ruling states any ban need not constitute direct discrimination and is permitted if the employer requires all their employees to dress neutrally but it cannot be in response to customers. This new ruling was prompted by the case of two Muslim women who had started wearing a headscarf at work.
This contrasts with the 2013 case of Nadia Eweida, who was put on unpaid leave for wearing a cross by her employer British Airways. BA lost its case after the European Court of Human Rights found in Eweida’s favour.
This ban means individual freedom has been curtailed as surely what a person wears should be a personal choice and not dictated by governments or legislation, especially if there is no specific requirement to adhere to a ‘dress code’ to do the role.
Women being ‘told’ what they can or cannot wear by others is demeaning to women who surely should make that decision for themselves.
‘Backdoor to prejudice’
This ruling is not limited to women and potentially means the prohibition of crucifixes, skullcaps and turbans – affecting some of the world’s largest religions.
Amnesty International called the ruling “disappointing and has opened a backdoor to prejudice” and the Conference of European Rabbis noted that “Europe is sending a clear message; its faith communities are no longer welcome”.
There is universal acceptance that if your political or religious view results in causing offence to another person then there may be a case to consider prohibiting certain symbols and items of clothing, such as wearing the swastika to promote hate and stoke division.
On that note, we’re now in a time where national identity politics and far right rhetoric have swept across Europe and marginalised groups have increasingly come under attack.
Go back 100 years in England and you will find ample examples of women choosing to cover wearing headscarves. The headscarf was not a threat then. It is not a threat now.
This ruling disproportionately is targeting Muslim women who choose to cover, contrary to the mistaken view that they are forced to cover and that by removing their headscarves this is a means to their liberation.
Sign of devotion
The headscarf is worn by Muslim women as a sign of devotion to their faith and to be modest in attire, but often becomes the focus of politicians, the media and hate groups. Women from other faiths also cover their hair by choice to adhere to their specific faith including Catholics, nuns, Orthodox Jewish women and Sikh women.
The most famous person in history depicted to have worn a headscarf was after all Mary, the mother of Jesus. In more contemporary times, the most iconic person wearing a head covering has been Mother Teresa. It has been encouraging to see big fashion brands and sporting labels in recent years become more diverse using models wearing headscarves as part of their product lines and marketing campaigns in an attempt to be more inclusive and reflective of the world that we live in today.
But go back 100 years in England and you will find ample examples of English women choosing to cover wearing headscarves. Icons such as Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe wore the headscarf as fashion statements and the Queen, throughout her time as monarch, has worn a headscarf on numerous occasions.
The headscarf was not a threat then. It is not a threat now. The European Court of Justice’s decision goes against the mantra of being able to bring your whole self to work and the ramifications of the decision are likely to impact negatively in the workplace across Europe.