The EU Court of Justice (CJEU) ruled that companies can now ban headscarves for Muslim employees, to “prevent social disputes”
The top EU court was ruling on a case brought by two Muslim women in Germany, who were both suspended from different jobs for wearing a headscarf.
Two women, suspended from work in Germany
The headscarf, known also as the Hijab, symbolises a key facet of religious and spiritual autonomy for the Muslims who choose to wear it. In recent years, France’s principle of “laïcité” has created tensions for Muslim communities, who are asked to be as religiously-neutral as possible in schools, public areas and workplaces. This includes a contentious ban on modest swimwear, enforced on a beach in Nice – where a Muslim woman was asked by police to remove her clothing.
This kind of decision-making is not exclusive to France. Across the EU, the question of religious expression versus the image of professional neutrality continues to divide populations, challenge the definition of freedom and raise concerns of Islamophobia.
In Germany, two women brought separate cases forward to a local court in 2017, which supported the employer in asking them to remove their headscarves. They were both suspended from work after making the decision to wear the headscarf. When asked by both employers to remove it, both refused on grounds of religious freedom. One of the women was moved to a less visible role.
After hearing their cases, the CJEU sided with their employer, supporting the headscarf ban.
The new ruling claims “religious neutrality”
The CJEU said: “A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes.
“However, that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer and, in reconciling the rights and interests at issue, the national courts may take into account the specific context of their Member State and, in particular, more favourable national provisions on the protection of freedom of religion.”
Research by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) found that Islamophobia most commonly impacts women in the job market, while the 2017 EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that one in three Muslims faced discrimination within the last 12 months.
‘Muslim women perceived to support domestic violence’
ENAR further looked at why the headscarf could be perceived as a catalyst for “social disputes”. In a report examining the experiences of Muslim women in the EU, they commented: “Muslim women are perceived to embody a homogeneous group supporting domestic violence and terrorism, homophobia, gender inequality, traditional gender roles, etc.”
The case will now return to National courts, which will have the final word on if the suspensions were a discriminatory move.
In the Netherlands, a 22 year-old Afghani-Dutch woman had her employment contract terminated after she made the decision to wear the headscarf. She said: “My employer asked me why I started to wear the headscarf, and I replied that it would not influence my ability to work. ‘I am still the same Sahar, and I will work in the same way I did before.’ She then said that people, customers, would now see that I am Muslim.
“‘Yes’, I told her, ‘but I have always been Muslim.’”