Liberty Not Neutrality

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By Tooba Khokhar, Cambridge, UK

On the 14th of March 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of a corporation wishing to prohibit its employees from “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign”. The plaintiff in this case, Belgian citizen Ms Samira Achbita was a “hijabi”, a woman observing the Islamic code of dress. The court ruled that the company, GS4, had the right to impose “neutrality” in dress-code.

In light of these statements, we really must ask ourselves whether we, as a society, have the right to define precisely what level of clothing is considered appropriately “neutral”? The Hijab worn by Ms. Achbita and so many Muslim women is a spiritual garment that offers us security and comfort of the heart. The Hijab by no means restricts women nor is it a political statement; what it represents to us is but devotion to God. Why must this spiritual garment be brought into courtroom disputes and become a pawn in the political arena?

After all, we cannot forget that the headscarf, the turban, the kippah- all are a part of the religious landscape of Europe. Indeed, Muslim and Jewish communities have long peopled the lands and isles of Europe. The sacred garments we wear hold so much meaning to us, to many of us they form an essential part of practice of our faith. Why then have the fabrics we have for so long donned become cause for such contention?

An equally alarming side to the ruling however is that if we start to maintain the rights of employers and corporations over and above the rights of the European citizen, where does it lead? Are we not embarking on a slippery slope of curtailing citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, one of the most sacred rights enshrined in our law? Though this ruling does not directly prohibit religious dress, it sets a precedent for allowing corporations and private entities to usurp the rights of their employees when it comes to religious expression. A precedent that could have dire consequences indeed.

It is a point where, as a society, we must question what path is it that we wish to take. Should we side with those wishing to enforce a colourless “neutrality” or are we to thrive in tolerance and co-existence? For integration does not mean wiping out any sign of difference, visible or otherwise- it means embracing one another in goodwill and respect and being all the stronger for it. As a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association here in the UK, I have never felt there to be any conflict between my Islamic faith and loyalty to Britain. In fact, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) maintained that loving your country is a part of faith. And I have always had before me the examples of countless women- doctors, teachers, lawyers, researchers who live, work and flourish alongside colleagues of all faiths and backgrounds all the while observing the Islamic code of dress.

There is no doubt that Britain is a nation that lives up to its values of peace, tolerance and respect. However, in the times we live in, we must hold on to these values ever more dearly. For a free state is a free state and a police state is a police state, regardless of whether it is “secularism” or religious orthodoxy the latter espouses.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments that “it is not for government to tell women what they can and cannot wear”. I hope this ethic extends to corporations and businesses too for it is a sure marker of any society whether it is money or morality that defines our ethics. One can only hope that the Belgian courts take no further steps against our freedom to practice our religion and that they rule in favour of liberty and not so-called “neutrality”.

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