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It remains a controversial subject: headscarves in the workplace. Can you, as an employer, ban headscarves or not? Does personal freedom outweigh an employer’s wish to radiate neutrality? The European Court of Justice recently ruled on this much-discussed piece of clothing. But has this solved the issue?
European Court: headscarves may be banned in the workplace
The ruling followed two separate lawsuits filed by German women who were both suspended for wearing a headscarf at work. One lady worked at a nursery, and wearing clothes or accessories that express religious beliefs is forbidden. The management did not want the children to be influenced by religion. The second case involved a lady who worked at a drugstore. She was also prohibited from wearing a headscarf at work, as the store wanted to radiate neutrality.
The highest judicial body in Europe ruled that if an employer wants to radiate neutrality, banning a headscarf is permitted. The employer must be able to prove that this is essential for the company.
Discrimination or not?
It is not the first time that the Court has addressed the headscarf issue. In 2017, a Belgian woman went to court because she could not wear a headscarf at work. The Court ruled that there was no discrimination in this case as a ban on religious expression was included in the company regulations. If a company has a customer who refuses to be helped by an employee wearing a headscarf, we can see this as discrimination.
I understand how the Court has described its ruling, but it remains difficult to distinguish between discrimination and non-discrimination. Following the ruling in 2017, I spoke to several Muslim women about their experiences with a headscarf. The interviews showed the headscarf is regularly a stumbling block during job interviews. Some women can barely even get a job. The tricky part is that a potential employer does not have to explain his decision. Of course, when you are in a job you have rights, and your employer must justify his actions. And as we see in both cases listed above, actions can even lead to lawsuits. But the question is whether a neutral appearance is a necessity or simply a company preference. The ruling is, therefore, a guideline, but one with a lot of room for interpretation.