Why you should care about the Muslim headscarf ban

Normally I do not like to put labels on myself, but for this post I make an exception. I am Jewish, atheist, lesbian and a feminist, and I stand with Muslim women’s right to wear a headscarf.

In March 2017 the European Court of Justice judged in favour of employers right to deny employees to wear visible religious clothing, the case was brought forward by two Muslim women in France that were dismissed because of their headscarf. While the judgement in theory affects also Jewish men wearing kippa and Sikh men wearing a turban, in reality it mainly targets women, Muslim women. Since the judgement in France, employers in other countries has followed, using the court case as a justification to further exclude Muslim women from the workplace.

Why should you care? One could argue that I shouldn’t bother as at it does not concern me. In fact, some would say Muslim women, and men, would not agree with my Jewish background, sexual orientation, or my lack of religious faith. I care because as Martin Niemöller wrote in his poem (circulated in the 1950s) “First they came for the Socialists (…) then the Trade Unionists (…) the then Jews (…) and I did not speak out because I was not a… (…) Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me”. When we speak up against discrimination and exclusion of others, we speak up for ourselves too. I care because this is a feminist issue, about the right to have equal access and opportunity to public space, employment and services, regardless of gender.

Banning Muslim women from wearing a headscarf is telling her what she can and cannot wear in order to get a job. Weather it is her choice to wear a headscarf or if it is opposed on her by family members is not the point. In both cases, it is the women who is being punished by society, which  is not fair. In the case of being forced to wear the headscarf, confining women to her private home is not helping her to seek outside support, on the contrary it further isolates her.

Paradoxically, the rest of us have the right to wear and look however we choose. When professional uniforms and dress-codes are not required, one can go to work with any crazy hairstyle and outrages cloths without formal repercussions. Instead of following the examples of businesses such as IKEA and Scandic Hotels; designing a headscarf that goes with the uniform, companies such as the Scandinavian Airlines refer to the court case and forced an applicant that passed the recruitment process to reject the job as she did not want to uncover herself. Let’s be frank, designing a scarf in conforming uniform colours of the company is not the issue. It is a deliberate choice by employers to exclude Muslim women, regardless if she would be the most qualified for the job. It is both islamophobic and sexist.

Furthermore, the European Court of Justice argued that the employer has a right to be neutral towards the clients. ‘Neutral’ in this sense means not to display religious affiliations that may include a scarf, kippa or turban. Between the lines (and in a European context) being Christian (and white) is considered neutral. On a side note,  watch Feminist Frequency spot-on analysis of Islamophobia in pop culture.

Banning the headscarf is not the society I want to live in. On the contrary, I want to live in a community that reflects the diversity of people around me, where everyone belongs (read my blog post about Toronto, a city that got it right). Embracing different religious clothing in the workplace is a matter of standing up for diversity and equality, and it is a way to resist the polarisation and division reactionary and radicalised groups try to impose. It is a also a profitable business case, and luckily many companies have figured out that diversity management increases productivity among staff, and inclusive advertisement attracts new consumers and clients.

The European Court of Justice headscarf ban is a part of a bigger problem of islamophobia in Europe, which is growing as terror attacks are carried out across Europe, recently in Manchester. Yes, religious fundamentalism is a serious issue but it also exist within ALL religions. Generalising and stereotyping only feeds xenophobia, racism and fear. We therefore need to name islamophobia and act against it. To end,  a few simple  tips on how to support when witnessing a Muslim women being harassed.

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