Sarah Waseem, London
By now most people know, The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can now stipulate that employees may not wear the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols. They argue that “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”.
I have been debating this with a friend. She maintains that there is nothing wrong in companies stipulating a dress code – that it their right to do so. If a Muslim woman or Jewish or Sikh man does not wish to comply, then he or she should look elsewhere for work.
It is true that dress codes have been in force for years from school uniforms to official uniforms. We expect people to dress and conform to certain standards when working at every level in society.
So what is wrong with the Luxemburg decision?
The Luxembourg-based court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute “indirect discrimination” if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.
But indirect discrimination is permissible if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary.”
In many hospitals in the UK uniform measure are already in place to reduce infection. So for example, many staff are expected to wear short sleeves. There is a logical reason for this. At airports, security concerns dictate that women covering their faces must remove their veils. Again, there is a rationale for this, that all must follow regardless of faith.
However, what does ‘a policy of neutrality’ mean? Psychologists have been telling us for a long time that we make judgements about people within a few minutes of meeting them. From their accents, we make rash conclusions about their political views; from body shapes we may censure or applaud food choices, and (here’s the clanger!) if they are attractive we are more likely to employ them and promote them!
So, given these biases that we as humans make, from seeing someone, the rationale of not making judgments about their religious affiliations seems somewhat nonsensical.
The reality is that religion has become politicised, especially in Europe. The other reality of this ruling is, that on sheer demographics, the main target will be Muslim women, rather than interestingly, Muslim men who do not usually display their faith affiliation so obviously. Such a move will mean some Muslim women will be forced to consider where they work, and for many, this may mean a withdrawal from sections of the labour market.
In my opinion, secularists are afraid of the power of faith – that believers do not look to solely the state for their needs but to a Higher Power. And the main source of their fear today, is Islam which is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world. Given the destruction wrought on the world by terrorist groups such as Daesh, their fears are understandable. However, these groups do not come out of nowhere, and as sociologists will remind us, discontent and resentment within the Muslims world has been brewing for centuries, largely aided by Western politics of interference in their affairs.
So what is the way forward? I have recently returned from the beautiful Spanish city of Cordoba, ruled by Arabs centuries ago. It was a city where faith was respected – Christians, Muslims and Jews lived cordially side by side. It was an era of a great exchange of ideas and cultures, and philosophies. It was an era of great material and scientific advancement as exemplified by the architectural beauty of the Cordoba mosque, or the ruins of the city of Medina Al Zahara.
Banning displays of faith will not lead to peace nor will they create greater integration. That comes from dialogue and discussion, not hiding one’s values, under the guise of ‘neutrality’. The court ruling, in my opinion sets a dangerous precedent which will undermine cohesion and may lead to further divide in societies.