The EU’s top court has ruled that employers can ban workers from wearing the hijab as long as they apply the same standard to other religious beliefs.
But the ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is likely to affect Muslim women more than any other group because their religiosity is so visible.
The ruling states that the ban “may be justified by the employer’s need to present itself in a neutral manner to customers or to prevent social conflicts.”
It stresses, however, that it must also “meet a genuine need on the part of the employer” and that court in individual EU member states may take into account “the specific context” in their country, “and, in particular, more favourable national provisions concerning the protection of freedom of religion.”
The ruling was in response to a case brought by two German Muslim female workers – a teacher and a cashier – who were asked by their employers not to wear Islamic headscarves while at work.
One criterion to justify the ban may, for instance, be the “legitimate expectations of clients and users” for neutrality, especially in the field of education, where parents may wish their children are supervised by people whose religious beliefs are not visible.
The employer must also prove that not enforcing such a ban could be detrimental to its activities.
Responding to the verdict Mehreen Khan, a journalist at the Financial Times, said: “Today’s ECJ ruling on the hijab is the latest in a string upholding companies’ rights to not employ Muslim women if they think it’s bad for their business. The ECJ suggests that if customers or clients of a company say they don’t want to see Muslim women in such jobs, that is also fine.
“The EU’s legal order has given carte blanche to private businesses to adopt racist hiring practices. The hijab is apparently an exception to otherwise robust anti-discrimination laws. The decision is being openly celebrated by Islamophobic far right politicians…
“No court operates in isolation from politics. Muslim women are subject to hostile environment policies in the EU. France and Belgium have led the assault against removing women from public life if you can’t see their hair. The ECJ today has again given companies the right to do the same.”
The Muslim Association of Britain said: “This is another example of Muslim women being told what they can and cannot wear. This time, the EU’s highest court decides to allow businesses to adopt Islamophobic hiring practices and it is sickening. Enough with this continuous discrimination and policing of Muslim women.”
And Naz Shah MP said: “Today’s ruling by the European Court of Justice suggesting that the hijab can be banned in the workplace is absurd, totalitarian and frankly shameful. The ruling by the court is not just an attack on Muslim women and their freedom to wear a headscarf at work, but also on Sikh men wearing a turban, Jewish men wearing a kippah, nuns wearing their religious clothing, and against people of all religions.
“Such rulings also undo decades of struggles by women fighting for their freedoms. I will be raising the concerns of many regarding this Islamophobic, ignorant and blatant attack on religious freedoms.”