While the EU Rules on Workplace Ban for Religious Symbols, What’s Next?

While the EU Rules on Workplace Ban for Religious Symbols, What’s Next?

On March 14, the European Court of Justice ruled that workplace bans on political, philosophical or religious symbols are not discriminatory, allowing the headscarf to be subject to removal.

The bans will not constitute “direct discrimination” if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign.”

I remember writing an article whilst at university about the proposed niqab ban in Holland which, at the time, seemed ridiculous and nothing more than an extreme right-wing daydream.

Fast forward 11 years and the Islamophobic sentiment has become mainstream.
We don’t have to look too far for examples such as The Sun columnist Kelvin Mackenzie’s attack on Channel 4 for allowing their newsreader, Fatima Manji, to wear a headscarf while reporting on the Nice attacks on Channel 4 News.

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Mackenzie wrote that it was “editorial stupidity” and then asked if it was “done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sign of slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”

The bans will not constitute “direct discrimination” if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign.” tweet

Shockingly, the independent watchdog Ipso rejected that the complaint made by Manji and Channel 4 was a  result of discrimination or harassment.

Last year, the Dutch Prime Minister voted in support of a partial ban on the niqab but no law has yet been implemented. However, prohibitions have been enforced in countries including France, Belgium, and Bulgaria, and similar ones are being considered in Germany.

It’s not just members of the Islamic faith that feel let down by the ruling.

The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, said, “This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe.”

The United Sikhs advocacy group said the “disturbing” ruling allowed employers to override fundamental human rights.

Mejindarpal Kaur, the group’s international legal director, said that although the ECJ only allowed for rules with “legitimate aims,” it fears that “employers will treat it as a license to discriminate at the point of hire”.

In all honesty, I’m angry. I’m angry at myself for not seeing this coming when I wrote about the proposed niqab ban back in 2006.

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I’m angry that my indifference to the niqab, which was not a part of my personal experience, led me to do nothing.

I am reminded of the often-quoted words of Martin Niemoller:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

While this ruling also includes philosophical or political as well as religious signs, symbols, and attire, it is yet to be seen how it will be implemented considering the fluid nature of politics and fashion.

For example, no one will forget Beyoncé’s decision to perform at the Super Bowl in attire reminiscent of the Black Panther uniform.

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Or how about Hillary Clinton wearing a white suit in support of the suffragette movement when accepting her party’s nomination for President?

Will things like slogan T-shirts expressing people’s support for Black Lives Matter, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice etc. be grounds for dismissal?

Will we be asked to leave if we get our hands on Stella Macartney’s 2017 Spring Collection designs that boldly declare “No Leather?”

Or perhaps people should think twice about choosing to wear the Scottish national dress, i.e. the kilt, as it was historically seen as an act of solidarity with the uprisings and the wearing of kilts and any form of tartan was banned as part of the 1746 Dress Act.

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The EU ruling seems convoluted and problematic to many. Jonathan Chamberlain, an employment lawyer at Gowling WLG, said: “…it’s fine for employers to have a dress code but it needs to be applied with some sensitivity and flexibility to take account of religious beliefs.” He continued, “What is almost certainly never okay is for an employer to tell an employee to stop wearing a religious symbol because a particular customer has asked for it.”

Yet again it seems that women will be instructed on their dress and be compromised of their right to choose what to wear.

What is almost certainly never okay is for an employer to tell an employee to stop wearing a religious symbol because a particular customer has asked for it. tweet

It is also hard to ignore how the timing. Just as this ruling restricts people’s right to dress according to their religious or political beliefs, we have seen a parliamentary report conclude that further investigation is needed into equality legislation after numerous accounts of gender discrimination in the workplace.

In short, whilst the EU have declared it legal for workplaces to dismiss employees based on their religious or political attire, the UK parliament is looking at how workplace dress codes have been found to be discriminatory towards women in general.

Perhaps, if the need for neutrality is so important, we should all start adopting the Mao suit?

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I always find it interesting when people use the enforcement of hijab in certain Muslim-majority countries as a way of exemplifying those countries’ inferior views of human rights and justice.

It seems that the only way to liberate us is to remove our right to choose even further.

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