What’s in a piece of cloth? A lot, apparently. The amount of airtime and column inches dedicated to discussing the attire of Muslim women – who are in a small minority across Europe – suggests this is one of the most pressing issues of our times. Of course, the arguments are not really about this piece of cloth at all – the debate has become a conduit for discomfort with immigration and cultural difference. This week’s ruling is no different.
Yesterday, the European Court of Justice – Europe’s highest court – ruled that employers can ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols. The judgement said that it was legitimate for a company to wish to project a neutral image, and that internal rules banning political, philosophical or religious symbols were permissible. When a company has such a policy, it is therefore not discriminatory to require a Muslim woman to remove a headscarf, a Jewish man to remove a skullcap, or a Sikh to remove a turban.
Although the decision applies to anyone who wears a religious symbol, attention has focused on hijab-wearing women. The decision specifically related to cases brought by two women, in France and Belgium, who were dismissed from their jobs for refusing to remove their headscarves. One woman, in Belgium, was dismissed from her job at G4S due to a company policy. The other, in France, was dismissed after a customer complaint. The judgement drew a distinction between a company having such a policy and a customer asking a staff member to remove a religious symbol, stating that the latter could still constitute discrimination. It is now up to the courts in France and Belgium to decide on the specific legality of these two cases.
The ruling, shorthanded in the media already as a “headscarf ban”, has prompted outrage from equality and anti-racism groups. Amnesty International warns that it “opens a backdoor” to prejudice, while others have drawn attention to the right to religious expression and the right to access the labour force: two rights that should not be in opposition to each other.
The decision, of course, comes against the backdrop of a frightening increase in right-wing populism across Europe, which posits Muslim immigration as an existential threat. The Dutch election this week has seen virulently anti-Muslim views take centre-stage, as has the forthcoming French presidential contest.
If integration is indeed the ultimate goal, enforcing barriers to participating in the workforce is hardly the best way of going about it
But there’s another, quieter context too that makes this decision profoundly worrying: existing, long-term, widespread discrimination against Muslims in the workplace. In the UK, unemployment in the Muslim community is roughly double that in the general population (12.8 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively). Hijab-wearing women, probably because of the highly visible signifier of their faith, are particularly badly affected. It’s for the same reason that hijab-wearing women are frequently the victim of hate crimes. Muslim women are three times more likely to be unemployed than women generally, and twice as likely to be economically inactive.
A report by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Commission last year found that highly qualified women who happen to wear the hijab were struggling to get jobs because of the assumption that they are “submissive and weak”. Many women interviewed reported being asked (illegally) whether they were married or had children, or being passed up for assignments because bosses questioned whether they’d be “allowed” to travel. Some said they had already abandoned wearing the headscarf in order to get a good job. This is not a choice that every woman in a headscarf feels able or willing to make, and nor should they have to.
Implicit racial biases are a well-recorded phenomenon that anyone of an ethnic minority background is well acquainted with. In 2015, Barack Obama described this as “the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal”. In their report, the Commons Women and Equalities Commission called for name-blind application processes to tackle the problem.
And that’s the crux of the matter here. The ruling on religious symbols doesn’t create a new prejudice – it doesn’t magic out of nowhere a barrier to entering the workforce. It legitimises and enforces one that already exists, and strips away part of the legal protection against these existing biases. Muslim women are already the most economically disadvantaged group in the UK, a pattern which is mirrored in other parts of Europe. The debate around the cloth that Muslim women choose to wear (or not) frequently involves hand-wringing over their oppression at the hands of Muslim men, but this is utterly tone deaf if it is superseded by discrimination and barriers to participation from mainstream society.
The political establishment in Britain and across Europe is perfectly comfortable complaining about repressive Islamic dress codes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are required to cover their heads. Why is it any better to tacitly prohibit them from doing so? If integration is indeed the ultimate goal, enforcing barriers to participating in the workforce is hardly the best way of going about it.