The ruling states that workplaces banning the wearing of a 'political, philosophical or religious sign' are not discriminatory
The European Court of Justice’s recent ruling legitimising the prohibition of religious head coverings in the workplace could normalise anti-Muslim prejudice and exclude Muslim women from the workforce according to human rights groups.
The ECJ this week ruled in favour of companies which ban workers from wearing any political or religious insignia, finding that internal rules excluding religious head coverings did not constitute ‘direct discrimination’ as long they formed part of a wider general policy.
The ruling was prompted by two test cases referred to the ECJ by courts in Belgium and France in which two female employees were fired for refusing to remove the hijab and is in stark contrast to Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantee ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and expressly prohibits religious discrimination, legitimising anti-Muslim sentiment at best and at worst, actively mainstreaming Islamophobia.
The ruling has come under fire from rights groups for opening what they described as a ‘back door to prejudice’ and for sending the message that faith communities are not welcome in Europe.
Last month, a Hope Not Hate report noted that although anti-Muslim groups remained somewhat marginal, their ideas had managed to gain traction with centrist politicians and that anti-Muslim rhetoric had been accelerated by coverage of the ‘migrant crisis’ in sections of the mainstream media.
The creeping process of normalising Islamophobia has also been exacerbated by authorities pandering to the right. Both Austria and Bavaria have recently banned full-face veils in public spaces and last year saw the controversial ‘Burka ban’ overturned when the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, suspended the move as an illegal ‘violation of fundamental liberties.’
A report published in 2016 by the Pew Research Centre concluded that unfavourable views about Muslims had surged following the 2015 refugee crisis and a spate of terror attacks in Europe. Amnesty International Director for Europe and Central Asia, John Dalhuisen described the ruling as ‘disappointing’ and said that at a time “when identity and appearance have become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less.”
The decision has delighted right-wing politicians riding a wave of populism on the eve of the French and Dutch elections, in which concerns about immigration and a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment are key issues pushing centrist politicians further to the right.
The ruling unfairly singles out hijab-wearing Muslim women who already face significant obstacles finding employment. Whether or not they choose to cover their hair has absolutely no effect on their performance at work.
In light of recent EU rulings prohibiting the imposition of sexist dress codes in the workplace, the ruling highlights the glaring disparity between attitudes to western women and the deeply entrenched and incorrect view that Muslim women are somehow ‘oppressed’ by wearing the hijab. On one hand, telling western women what they don’t have to wear whilst simultaneously telling Muslim women what not to wear on the other. To empower women, we must empower all women.
With the rise in hate crimes and other racially motivated incidents in recent years, the ECJ ruling will serve as a green light to those wishing to normalise discrimination against women and faith communities, allowing employers greater scope to discriminate against workers and undermining social cohesion, and is wholly unacceptable in a democratic and inclusive society.
Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War
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