Ban on headscarves and religious clothing is discrimination

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"So far, no country in Western Europe has found a convincing balance of equal opportunity and respect for religious diversity," said Yasemin El-Menouar, an Islam expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. [Katja Klein/Flickr]

Muslim women wearing headscarves are facing yet another hurdle on the path towards inclusion and employment in the European labour market, writes Michaël Privot.

Michaël Privot is the Director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

Recently, an advocate-general at the European Court of Justice issued an opinion backing a private sector workplace ban on headscarves, in relation to a case involving a Muslim woman who was fired by G4S in Belgium for wearing a headscarf.

According to this opinion, companies should be free to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at work if they have a general policy banning all religious and political symbols, which effectively prevents all Muslim women wearing the headscarf from working for them. Interestingly, another advocate-general of the European Court of Justice just issued an opinion on a similar court case in France (Bougnaoui v Micropole SA) and considers the dismissal as direct and unlawful discrimination.

These opinions are not binding and the rulings are due in the autumn. However, the opinion on the Belgian case already sets a worrying precedent in terms of protection against religious discrimination.

It not only goes against EU equality legislation, which prohibits employers from discriminating on grounds of religion (as well as ethnic origin, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender), except if there is a legitimate and proportional occupational requirement, which is not the case here. It will also have a very tangible and damaging effect on thousands of women across the EU who wear headscarves, preventing them from accessing the labour market and being included in society.

Indeed, the European Network Against Racism’s recent report on the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women shows that they experience a triple gender, ethnic and religious penalty in employment and that the headscarf is an additional obstacle in finding and keeping a job. In Belgium for instance, 44% of employers agree that wearing a headscarf can negatively influence the selection of candidates.

G4S also claimed that its refusal to allow their employee to wear a headscarf was ‘neutral’. However, the argument of ‘neutrality’ used by the company and endorsed by the advocate general is flawed. Such a policy is not ‘neutral’ as it completely excludes people who follow religions that require wearing clothing to express their religion. It can also not be justified as an ‘occupational requirement’ as it does not in any way hinder the employee’s ability to perform her job as a receptionist.

Indeed, many companies allow staff to wear such clothing – including G4S itself, which incorporated the headscarf into the uniform worn by their security guards at the London Olympics. In our current diverse societies, allowing employees to dress according to their religious practice highlights that employers respect this diversity and plurality, and no one would assume that the company is partial to one given religion.

The upcoming rulings by the European Court of Justice will be critical in ensuring that people who are discriminated against on the ground of their religion are actually protected. If it does not uphold this fundamental right, it could have serious consequences for the employment opportunities of Muslim women and other people wearing visible religious signs, but also have an adverse ripple effect on other grounds such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and sex.

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