The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that employers can ban Muslim employees from wearing the headscarf (hijab), but only if they bar all other religious and political symbols.
The landmark ruling came amid legal disputes in Belgium and France over the right for Muslim women to wear the hijab at work. Two employees in Belgium and France had brought the case to the ECJ after being dismissed for refusing to remove their hijab.
The Belgian woman, Samira Achbita, had been working as a receptionist for G4S Secure Solutions, which has a general ban on wearing visible religious symbols, while the French claimant Asma Bougnaoui, an IT consultant was told to remove her hijab after a client complained.
Announcing its verdict on March 14 the ECJ ruled that employers prohibiting, “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination. However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.”
The G4S dispute, which started in 2006, was based on an “unwritten rule” banning employees wearing signs of their political or religious beliefs, but the company’s workplace regulations were updated after Achbita started wearing a hijab.
Although they apply to all religions, the ECJ said it was “not inconceivable” that such rules could be deemed discriminatory for indirectly targeting Islam over other religions.
Bougnaoui a design engineer for Micropole, was asked to stop wearing her hijab to maintain neutrality after a client’s complaint but refused and was dismissed.
The ECJ referred the case back to the French Court of Cassation to establish whether the move was a “genuine and determining occupational requirement” and whether there were any formal rules in place that meet non-discrimination requirements.
The court’s advocate general recommended that companies should be allowed to prohibit hijab as long as a general ban on other symbols was in place last year.
Their advice in the French case was that a rule banning employees from wearing religious symbols when in contact with customers was discrimination, particularly when it only applied to the hijab.
The court’s ruling has been widely slammed by Muslim and human right groups across Europe. France’s anti-Islamophobia group Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) called the verdict an “economic and social death sentence” on Muslim women who are “already widely discriminated during the recruitment phase.” A spokesman for CCIF said the court sent “the worst message to tens of millions of European Muslims, at a time when the rhetoric of terrorists on all sides seeks to spread the idea of a divide between Europe and Muslims.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Muslim Council of Britain who branded the ECJ’s ruling “sad day for justice and equality”. In a statement to The Muslim News a spokesman for the council said, “At a time when populism and bigotry are at an all-time high, we fear that this ruling will serve as a green light to those wishing to normalise discrimination against faith communities. Many will be worried that this action will prevent Muslim women who choose to wear the scarf from securing jobs. And it sends a message that we cannot accept a plural society that recognises and celebrates religious differences. This is a backward step which people of all faiths and none should speak out against.”
Amnesty International “urged nations states to react against the decision”, which gives “greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women and men on the grounds of religious belief”.
Samina Ansari, CEO of Amina Scottish National Muslim Women’s Organisation stated: “Annually we work with over 500 Muslim women through our employability projects in Glasgow and Dundee, and are aware of the precedent and negative impact that such a ruling will have on further penalising and denying Muslim women that wear hijab, from aspiring to or accessing employment opportunities, climbing up the career ladder or continuing in specific roles. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that is promoted in the West, and yet to restrict this very freedom, of wearing the hijab, you are oppressing women that are active citizens, integrated and contributing to society, fuelling the continued undermining of this already discriminated community group”.