The European Union‘s top law court ruled on Tuesday that employers are entitled to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols – a decision some said was a direct attack on women wearing hijabs at work.
The European Court of Justice said it does not constitute “direct discrimination” if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign”.
The court gave a judgment in the cases of two women, in France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their hijabs, or the headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion.
Al Jazeera spoke to four women for their views on the ruling.
‘The European Court of Justice has chosen to protect companies instead of citizens’
Warda El-Kaddouri was the UN Youth Delegate for Belgium in 2015 and 2016.
When my youngest sister decided to wear a hijab at the age of 18, the feeling that overcame my parents was one of fear: Fear for their child not to be accepted; to be burdened by her choice; to be deprived of her educational and professional opportunities; even to be verbally or physically attacked in public – which actually happened.
Empowerment of women, to me, means having the freedom to make your own decisions about your own body. Today, this only seems to be the case for women choosing to wear less, not for women choosing to wear more. If I want to consider wearing a hijab, I want to be able to do that without having to fear losing my job. My capacities and talents as a person do not change by wearing a piece of chiffon on my head.
I have seen veiled young women taking rejection after rejection after rejection for internships or jobs on the basis of their hijab. I have seen how they slowly slipped into a mental state of demotivation and alienation – even depression. How can we demand women take something off in order to participate in society?
Being able to work is a crucial factor of social participation, and thus of integration. Instead of making the labour market more accessible to ethnic and religious minorities and to women – two socially vulnerable groups – we choose to create more obstacles for veiled Muslim women. Why should a woman take off her veil in order to receive equal opportunities?
The principle of neutrality is understood differently in different countries. Whereas a Sikh can wear a turban as part of a police uniform in the UK’s multicultural society model, a Muslim cannot wear a hijab in a public function in France’s laicised society model. Belgium is somewhere in between these two models. I believe an individual wearing a religious symbol does not necessarily compromise the neutrality of the state as an institution as long as the public servants work according to the rules of the particular state.
I would even go as far as arguing that visible religious diversity is in fact the very outcome of a neutral state. The forced absence of religious symbols, such as the hijab, cannot be neutral as the Flemish right-wing parties proclaim.
Belgium has also not been immune to the extreme right-wing populist and nationalist parties in Europe. Politicians, public intellectuals and opinion-makers making racially prejudiced and stigmatising statements have been the rule rather than the exception. The ruling enforces already existing bans on religious symbols in public institutions such as schools and city halls in Belgium. Therefore, the political parties on the extreme right feel justified to continue their business as usual.
Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab already know in advance that their job opportunities are limited. I cannot think of a socially more vulnerable group than veiled Muslim women with a migration background, as they can be discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, gender and visible religion.
The new ruling has given companies a legal way to get rid of the hijab. The European Court of Justice has chosen to protect companies instead of citizens.
The psychological impact on European Muslims in general cannot be underestimated.
Against the background of an increasingly hostile political atmosphere, my peace of mind relied on the judicial pillars of democracy. Being a woman of colour, I assumed that – even in the worst case xenophobic scenarios – I could always fall back on the legal system to protect my basic human rights. Now, I am not that certain any more. I can see the same fear in the eyes of my Muslim family members, my colleagues, my friends.”
‘Neutrality is an illusion’
Aya Sabi is a 21-year-old Dutch writer and columnist.
Although the ruling was applied to all faiths, it started with an incident with a headscarf and in practice we see that this law especially affects Muslim women wearing a headscarf and people from the Sikh community.
The headscarf bothers people because people have in their head a very defined image of Muslims and Islam which [for them] is terrifying … Employers are afraid of losing their customers, maybe even afraid of the headscarf, which is why the principle of neutrality is established. But neutrality is an illusion.
“Neutral” is actually another word for “normal”, what we accept as OK, and everything outside of that is not OK. Today [the ruling suggests that] these are Muslims, they are not OK, not normal, and don’t belong here. In other words, they are not home.
If you are served by a woman with a headscarf, whether she sits at the counter, or works with you, or teaches you, she is first and foremost a woman who has chosen that morning to cover her hair as [a decision about] her body first. And since her body is first and foremost hers, no one has the right to question that choice, let alone prohibit her.”
‘For Muslim women a headscarf is not an accessory; rather, it is a part of their belief’
Ilknur Kucuk is a 38-year-old writer of Turkish origin.
My 11-year-old daughter once asked me: “Mama, shall I leave Germany to study wearing a headscarf, as you did to leave your home country to study?” I said “No honey, in Germany you will be able to study and work with a headscarf. Don’t worry.” But today I’m not sure if she can do so.
I had to leave Turkey because of the headscarf problem 20 years ago to be able to study wearing a headscarf. I am one of the people who had difficult times due to religious belief.
I find the decision of the European Court of Justice, which allows private companies to ban “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign”, as a very crucial decision. The judgment comes as some European countries, such as the Netherlands, France, and Germany, are in a critical election season.
In recent years – along with [far-right populist] Pegida [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West Patriotic] – Germany’s far-right party the Alternative for Germany [AfD] became more and more popular. Overall, the rise of far-right parties or movements can’t be stopped. In such a situation I consider the ruling of the European Court of Justice more political than legal.
For Muslim women a headscarf is not an accessory; rather, it is a part of their belief. So, just like one’s ethnicity, it can’t be changed or replaced. The headscarf ban will keep Muslim women out of jobs and business.
If we look at supporters of the headscarf ban in Germany, we will see that most of them are people who don’t have deep insights into Islam and Muslims.
For example, I had German neighbours who never visited a Muslim family. When we became closer they asked me so many questions about Islam and Muslim women. After a while they said “We recognise that actually, until now, we didn’t know Muslim people.”
Unfortunately, the headscarf ban will make the over four million Muslims living in Germany more discriminated against. In the future I will continue to write and fight for our rights.
All views have been edited for clarity and length.