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Top European court rules companies can ban headscarf in workplace

Safya Khan-Ruf/HOPE not hate | Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Employers can ban Muslim employees from wearing headscarves as long as other religious symbols are also banned in the workplace, according to a ruling today by the European Court of Justice.

The ruling is the first of its kind and comes after a series of legal disputes on the wearing of headscarves in the workplace. The judges ruled the wearing of the Islamic headscarf was a personal decision and its prohibition did not “constitute a direct discrimination based on religion or belief.”

The judges gave the joint judgement based on cases brought forward by two women who had been dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarf. The judges said it was not “inconceivable” that the ruling could be seen as targeting Muslims over other religious groups.

However, the judges said in a statement that the “indirect discrimination may be objectively justified by a legitimate aim” such as religious neutrality or customer satisfaction.

The French claimant, Ms Bougnaoui, was a design engineer employed by Micropole and wore a headscarf. Following a complaint from a client that her headscarf “embarrassed” them, Micropole asked her to remove it. Ms Bougnaoui refused and was dismissed despite her company noting her “professional competence”.

Ms Achbita worked for G4S Security Solutions in Belgium. She worked for the company for three years before she decided to wear a headscarf at her workplace. G4S said this was against their “unwritten rules” on religious neutrality and subsequently changed their company’s employee policies. When she refused to go to work without her headscarf, she was dismissed.

The court’s advocate general stated last year that companies should be allowed to ban headscarves as long as other religious symbols were also prohibited.

Attempts were made last summer by French local authorities to ban the “burkini” worn by Muslim women but the courts repealed this.

The ruling comes a day before the Dutch parliamentary elections, which have been dominated by the issue of integration and identity.

'The judgement carries very serious consequences in that it directly questions the future of the concepts of discrimination and freedom in general, throughout the European soil,' stated the Collective Contre l’Islamophobie en France, an association combating Islamophobia.

The ruling 'seriously undermines the right to equality and non-discrimination of women,' said Amel Yacef, Chair of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), a coalition of anti-racist groups in Europe. 'This is an extremely worrying decision because it effectively bars all Muslim women wearing the headscarf from the workplace. This is nothing short of a Muslim ban applied only to women in private employment, just because of how they choose to dress according their religion.'

Amnesty also issued a statement condemning the ruling: 'Today's disappointing rulings by the European Court of Justice give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women - and men - on the grounds of religious belief. At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less.'

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