When 24-year-old Shilan Ahmad arrived to start work at a nursery in Erfurt, Germany, she was immediately turned away.
She had applied for the job with her resume and a photo. When she received approval by phone from the nursery’s director, she was excited.
But as she met Ahmad in person last December, the director took one look at her and turned to the colleague who had organised the meeting.
“How can it be that you’ve allowed this woman to come speak with me?” she said.
Ahmad, who is from Syria, was wearing a headscarf.
She did not think this would be a problem, because she assumed the hiring team had seen the photo of her, with the hijab, before bringing her in.
“When I got home, I told my mother, I’m taking my headscarf off,” she said. “I said, I can’t anymore. I was rejected [from the job], and I can’t anymore.”
European Court of Justice ruling
In theory, situations like Ahmad’s are illegal – workers are protected by German constitutional law from outright religion-based discrimination, and should be given an equal chance at jobs in almost all sectors.
But the definition of workplace discrimination with respect to religious expression in Germany is complicated.
In July, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld a 2017 ruling allowing employers to adopt neutrality policies banning religious garb in the workplace. But the decision added conditions.
Now, employers are required to prove that the neutrality policy they have adopted is essential for business.
Before the 2017 decision, banning religious symbols for any reason other than safety was not allowed.
The ECJ case was brought forward by two German female workers, a daycare centre teacher and a cashier, who were asked by their employers not to wear the Muslim headscarf at work.
The teacher had worked at the centre for two years before opting to wear the headscarf in early 2016. She wore the scarf to work until mid-October, when she went on maternity leave until May 2018.
Two months before she arrived back at work, the centre adopted a new neutrality policy for its employees, barring them from wearing “any signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs that are visible to parents, children and third parties in the workplace”.
When she returned, she decided to keep the scarf on. After refusing to remove it, she was suspended. Around the same time, another colleague was asked to remove her cross necklace, according to the ruling.
The second case was similar. When a Muslim cashier at a German chain pharmacy refused to remove her scarf, she was sent home.
The top EU court ruled the actions against the veiled employees were acceptable because the neutrality policies were implemented in a “general and undifferentiated way” and therefore could not be considered direct discrimination.
The court added that such policies can only be enforced if they meet a genuine need proven by the employer.
July’s ECJ ruling requires workplaces to prove more concretely that religious symbols in the workplace could cause palpable financial or interpersonal harm, according to Hamburg civil rights lawyer Tugba Uyanik.
She said the way the media handled the story may have had an impact.
“The European Court of Justice ruling was sold as very negative,” Uyanik said. “Like, ‘Headscarf Ban in the Workplace is Legal.’ I think because employers heard this [headline] without understanding the conditions, it could be that some said, ‘Yeah, we have a neutrality policy now, too,’ without actually reading through or understanding the judgement.”
No Nazi tattoos, no headscarves
Another similar neutrality law banning religious symbols for German federal police officers went into action in early July.
The law was introduced in response to a 2017 incident involving a police officer who had tattooed the notes of the Nazi Party anthem across his chest.
Although his superiors wanted to fire him, they discovered there was no way to legally dismiss someone based merely on his tattoos.
In May 2021, the German government passed the “Law Regulating the Appearance of Civil Servants” in response to the case.
But instead of sticking only to banning Nazi tattoos, the law also includes a section allowing bans on “religious and ideological connotations” – like hijabs or Jewish kippas, for example – “if they are objectively capable of impairing trust in the civil servant’s neutral conduct of office.”
Uyanik said the law is confusing and unnecessary.
Each German state can adopt its own neutrality rules. Some have laws banning public lawyers from wearing the headscarf, for example. Berlin, for many years, had its own law banning public school teachers from wearing the headscarf.
“The institution of yet another neutrality law at the federal level sends the wrong signal to [veiled] women, because they think, why are you so preoccupied with me?” Uyanik said. “I am not doing anything. It’s enough to have to fight the laws in my own state. Why are you doing this?”
Lack of clarity
The real-life implications of the various laws are not yet easy to measure.
With most jobs requiring CVs including headshots, it is likely most women do not even end up knowing whether their rejection was based on their headscarf or something else, said Uyanik.
Many hijab-wearing women have good experiences in the German workplace.
It is not uncommon to see cashiers, pharmacists or saleswomen wearing headscarves. Still, the weight of uncertainty is heavy.
Zehra Eres, a biotechnology student at the Technical University of Berlin, said her dream is to teach.
But she is based in the capital.
Eres sees the hijab as part of her identity, so she knew she could not give it up. It is the only reason she did not study education to teach, she said.
Although Berlin’s law banning teachers from wearing the scarf was ruled unconstitutional last year, it is unclear when that decision will be fully implemented.
All teachers in Germany’s public schools were banned from wearing the scarf until 2015, when the federal law was overturned.
For women looking for jobs or internships, like Ahmad, the lack of clarity surrounding rejections can be maddening.
Siba Biri, a 28-year-old Syrian in Erfurt, searched for months for an internship at a pharmacy, which she needed to complete her pharmacy technician programme.
After sending dozens of resumes, calling several pharmacies and walking in herself to ask about available spots, she still could not find anything.
“My question is: why were all my German classmates able to find a spot?” she said. “Just me and my friend, who also comes from Syria and wears a headscarf, haven’t found one.”
For most German politicians campaigning ahead of Sunday’s election, the neutrality laws are insignificant and have not featured on their agendas.
The only parties that mention the headscarf are the country’s Left party, which positions itself against workplace bans, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is against the headscarf in schools and public sector jobs, like in France.
In the end, Ahmad decided to keep her headscarf on.
The experience compelled her to start fighting for broader acceptance of the headscarf. After her rejection, she wrote an article about her hijab for an online magazine and joined Germany’s Green Party.
She wants to become an activist or journalist focusing on women’s rights issues.
The headscarf, she says, should be a personal choice. If she ever has to deal with women fleeing oppressive governments, families or relationships where they have been forced to veil, she said, she will support them in removing their scarf if that is what they want to do.