EU hijab ruling marks a shameful new low for civil liberties

EU hijab ruling marks a shameful new low for civil liberties in Europe
5 min read
28 Jul, 2021
Opinion: Allowing companies to prevent employees from wearing the hijab in order to present a "neutral image" is an absurd justification for a racist and exclusionary policy, writes Malia Bouattia.
'The court's decision reinforces the racist belief that the hijab is a polarising, politically-loaded item of clothing' writes Bouattia [Getty]

The recent ruling by the EU's highest court allowing businesses to ban the hijab from being worn by employees is yet another episode in Europe's long-running saga of enshrining Islamophobic practices in law.

Two cases of Muslim women in Germany who were reprimanded for wearing the hijab were brought to the attention of the court. At different points in time, they were asked not to wear it, told that it wasn't permitted in the workplace, and faced suspensions. 

Upon reviewing this discriminatory treatment, the court decided that "[a] prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical, or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer's need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes".

"Neutrality is simply impossible when we are socialised to ascribe profound political meanings to a wide array of physical and behavioural traits"

It's almost surreal to read that the justification for institutionalised Islamophobia is the protection of so-called neutrality. Are we supposed to believe that a piece of clothing is a barrier to neutrality? Why is deciding not to wear the hijab a more "neutral" decision than deciding to do so?

The impossibility of neutrality

Gender, race, ethnicity, and age all contribute to a person's identity, and these characteristics are hardly devoid of history, political assumptions, or associations. They all elicit encourage behaviours and responses from colleagues, customers or clients. Neutrality is simply impossible when we are socialised to ascribe profound political meanings to a wide array of physical and behavioural traits. It seems only right that a court of law should have some understanding of this.

But the unfairness defies logic and reason. The court's decision reinforces the racist belief peddled by European states, that the hijab is a polarising, politically-loaded item of clothing, which can therefore be banned in "normal" places of work, across the continent.

The ruling normalises the rejection, marginalisation, and exclusion of Muslim women from public spaces. In addition, it raises real questions about the status of freedom of religion in the EU. If we are free to have a religion, but not free to express it in accordance with our beliefs, how significant can such a right really be? Clearly, this is far from neutral. 

Intensifying Islamophobia

Recently, there has been a domino effect of European states, from France and Switzerland to Denmark and Austria, intensifying their assaults on Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, by targeting how they choose to dress. In banning burqas, niqabs, and hijabs in certain circumstances or altogether, an increasing number of European states are also curtailing Muslim women's ability to participate in public life. The message is clear: while their cheap labour might be looked for by employers and states, they should remain out of sight and avoid influencing society.

"The message is clear: while their cheap labour might be looked for by employers and states, they should remain out of sight and avoid influencing society"

This decision is not the first of its kind. In 2017, the European Court of Justice gave companies the green light to ban employees from wearing the hijab. Furthermore, when France enacted their burqa ban over a decade ago, it was the European Court of Human Rights that upheld what has now become a blueprint policy for other countries on the continent. 

In fact, there is such a disproportionate focus on Muslim women that it's impossible to see these bans as anything but political. In Switzerland for example, where a burqa ban was introduced in March, there are only around 30 women in a country of 8.6 million who wore the religious garment. Yet, the resources and attention garnered, which included a national referendum, showcased the shamelessness of the Islamophobic agenda. 

The ban and endemic sexism

As long as the national debate is focused on Muslims and their supposed backward ways, pervasive sexism and women's oppression can be swept under the carpet.

"They" are the problem, not "us".  

This comes during a global pandemic that has further underscored the gendered ways in which inequality plays out, with women bearing the unequal economic brunt of lockdowns, and rates of domestic violence skyrocketing.

The likely response to this ruling will be smoke and mirror tactics - something that is all too familiar to Muslim women in Europe. 

We will be told that all physical religious expression will be impacted by this ruling and that it is, therefore, unfair to claim this is an example of Islamophobia.

Firstly, being the target of racist practices is no more comforting if you know that other religions can also fall victim to them. It is not news that there is a close correlation between the growth of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment and policies - as French Prime Minister Gerald Darmanin demonstrated in his recently published book which manages to be both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic.

 "If we are free to have a religion, but not free to express it in accordance with our beliefs, how significant can such a right really be?"

Secondly, given both the context of rising Islamophobia across Europe, paired with the fact that the ruling is the outcome of two Muslim women being victimised for wearing the hijab at work, there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that this will disproportionately impact Muslims.

While the ever-expanding methods of gendered Islamophobia might render many complacent or despairing, the ruling should serve instead as a motivation to take action. 

Every new bit of news can be turned into fuel and an opportunity to resist the racist treatment of Muslim women at the hands of the state. Each institution that reinforces dominant and hateful views should be met with protests, legal challenges, and civil disobedience wherever possible. The only way to break unjust laws, after all, is to collectively refuse to implement, follow, or legitimise them. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.