Under cover lawsby Nesrine Malik / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Few issues come around as regularly as the controversy over the hijab (headscarf) and niqab (face-veil). Europe is forever finding new issues with what Muslim women wear. Emotions run high between those who think the hijab is one more symbol of private religious practice—like wearing a Christian cross—that a secular Europe can fairly restrict in public; and those who think secularism is being used to target Muslims.
The truth is a blend of the two. There is a brand of European—especially French—secularism that is perturbed by overt expressions of religion. But it is often selectively perturbed: less likely, for example, to worry about displays of Catholicism, than of Islam.
In March, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign” in a workplace need not constitute direct discrimination. Employers can only impose a ban where existing company rules require all staff to “dress neutrally.” They cannot bow to the wishes of a customer who feels uncomfortable interacting with, say, a woman in a headscarf or a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke. On the face of it, this seems to be a straightforward judgment based on an employer’s right to present a “neutral image.”
Some have nonetheless seen this ruling as legal permission for a discriminatory hijab ban. You can understand this perspective: recall the sight last year of a French policeman forcing a woman on a beach to remove her burkini. But the task of the judges was not easy. While they ruled in the cases of two women, in France and Belgium, who had been dismissed for refusing to remove headscarves at work, they were grappling with a law that covered the limits on religious freedom as a whole, not Islam in particular. The only choice was between the extreme of unfettered freedom for all religions, and freedom for some on an arbitrary basis—depending on the direction in which the winds of tolerance are blowing.