By Iman Amrani
15 March 2017
This week’s decision by the European court of justice to allow the hijab to be banned in the workplace is yet another sign of the continent’s obsession with how Muslim women dress.
The ruling states that the hijab can be banned only as part of a policy barring all religious and political symbols – and so framed in a way that doesn’t directly target Muslim women. Indeed, the Conference of European Rabbis was outraged, saying that the ruling sent a clear message that Europe’s faith communities were no longer welcome – and a number of religious communities, including Sikhs, will be affected.
However, there’s no doubt that Muslims are the main group in the line of fire. That’s why far-right groups across the continent were so delighted with it. “Of course companies have to be allowed to ban the wearing of headscarves,” said Georg Pazderski, of Germany’s hardline Alternative für Deutschland. “Even the ECJ votes Marine [le Pen],” tweeted the French MP Gilbert Collard, a Front National supporter.
Of course, you don’t have to be far right to welcome a ban on “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign”. Many liberals too believe that religion has no place in a secular western society. There’s clearly no discrimination, they say, given that under the same ruling Christians would not be able to wear the cross.
However, the Hijab doesn’t fit neatly under the bracket of being a “religious symbol”. It’s not the equivalent of a piece of jewellery that displays pride in your faith, and which can easily be concealed to stop people feeling uncomfortable. For its wearers the Hijab is a core part of their way of life, linked to the way they choose to practise their faith. It is not up for debate.
By permitting a ban on the Hijab, Europe is essentially permitting a ban on Muslim women in the workplace.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider for a moment what the real effects of a Hijab ban in the workplace will be. Do we really believe that women who have a religious conviction to wear the headscarf are just going to take it off when they start their job each day? I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works.
Identity isn’t something you suppress for public spaces. I don’t stop being a Muslim when I come into work and turn into a journalist. I practise my faith in the canteen by not choosing the pork option, or when I ask for a soft drink instead of wine at the after-work drinks. If my colleagues notice that I’m doing this, and it makes them uncomfortable, should I be forced to behave differently?
The hijab should be protected as a freedom because for many women it represents an integral part of who they are. If Muslim women are forced to choose between their faith and working in an environment that is hostile towards them, they will simply avoid these workplaces. Maybe you can’t see a problem with that. Maybe you think Muslims are the problem.
Ultimately, rather than increasing integration – which those who advocate the ban desire – it will lead to deeper divisions in our society, with more Muslim women deciding to stay in spaces where they feel safe, and integrating less. There will be increased ghettoisation and resentment.
The French staged ceremonies where Algerian women had their veils removed to show they'd chosen the coloniser's side
Don’t get me wrong, I want to live in a secular society. I believe that law and justice in this country should be removed from religious influence; but also that individuals should be free to practise their faith insofar as it doesn’t impact on those around them. That does not mean being forced to succumb to the intolerance of those who are offended by the sight of a headscarf.
For years, western values have been used to try to control and manipulate the very women people claim to be liberating. During the war of independence in Algeria in 1958 a French propaganda poster showed two faces – one veiled, one unveiled – with the slogan: “Are you not pretty? Then unveil yourself!” Alongside this, the French staged mass “unveiling” ceremonies, in which Algerian women would have their veils removed to show they had chosen the side of the colonisers.
I have friends who have taken to wearing the hijab in recent years because they feel their Muslim identity has been threatened, and they have decided to take a stand for their faith.
The far-right, and now the European courts, may have succeeded in turning the hijab into something perhaps even more powerful than a symbol of religion, and turning it into a symbol of resistance too.