Writing by Ece Kucuk. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
On 15 July 2021, The High Court of the European Union made a decision that the ‘prohibition of 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.”
This decision came from two minor cases in Germany that dealt with Muslim women being asked to take off their hijabs due to their religious beliefs going against the ‘image’ of the company and what the customers wanted to see. When asked this, the two women in question refused to do so. They were subsequently punished, with one of them being suspended and given a warning. The other was transferred to a post where their religious apparel wouldn’t be of concern as she wouldn’t interact with other people.
When this news first came to light, the media circuit erupted: headlines claimed that this was, in fact, an attack on Muslim women in Europe as they would naturally be impacted by this decision more than others. Nevertheless, the High Court has stood by its ruling and continues to back its decision by claiming that the ban refers to all religious denominations and doesn’t focus on a particular one. Since no religion is singled out, they deny that the ruling discriminates against any religion in particular.
I am, however, inclined to disagree. The High Court believes that because their ruling is a blanket statement that it is intrinsically not discriminatory. The truth is that a ruling such as this opens the flood gates to allow discrimination and be used as an excuse to hinder Muslim women and other religious minorities from finding suitable jobs or even entering the workforce. Although the ban applies to other religions, wearing a cross around one’s neck is not considered mandatory in the Christian faith, whereas wearing a hijab is compulsory in Islam. There are other religions where this ruling creates an impossible situation.
It is no shock to me, however, that this is the case. Throughout my travels across Europe, I have come to find that discrimination against Muslim women and other denominations continues to persevere.
In 1988, two Muslim girls were refused permission to wear headscarves in Manchester, Britain, on ‘the basis of hygiene.’ In 1989, a similar issue occurred in France outside of Paris. It is thus clear that there are deep roots to this issue that go well back, and it seems will continue to happen long after today.
Dating back to 2009, especially seen after the terrorist attack in France in 2016, multiple towns, predominantly in southern France, banned burkinis – bathing suits worn by Muslim women of a modest nature that covers their bodies – claiming that they were linked to Islamic Extremism. Muslim women were banned from going to the beach and were forced to change if they wanted to participate in activities that others were naturally allowed to be a part of.
Muslim men and women are in the minds of anti-immigration activists and believers, linked as the reason behind unemployment and other issues in Europe. Especially in the last two decades, as terrorism has continued to prevail and cause destruction in several European and North American countries, the blame has been put on the Islamic population residing in these nations."Thus, this ruling enables those prejudiced towards minority religions and people to use and abuse the legislation as they see fit. else. "
Although the ruling suggests that employers need a legitimate reason to ban religious symbols or clothing, their reasoning can be as simple as ‘requests from customers’ or claim they want ‘an image of neutrality, and their reason is justified. This not only allows exclusion, but also leads the way to rank discrimination, which would keep Muslim women and other minority groups from moving up in the ranks. It can keep them from succeeding in their jobs or obtaining jobs they want to or have been educated to pursue. It can also keep them from ever accomplishing a higher position than the ones they are currently in. This is already the case in many European countries, and this ruling only makes it legal and allows it to continue to happen.
On the outskirts of Lyon, France, a 48-year-old Muslim woman spends her days working as a cleaning lady in public buildings such as schools and banks. She came to this country almost 3 decades ago in 1992 and has been working in France since 2003. In the meantime, she got married, had three kids, and now has a grandchild. Yet, her struggles to obtain French citizenship have never ceased, and the requirements have only continued to worsen.
Although wishing to do more with her life, when speaking to me about her struggles, she mentions how difficult it has been to obtain a job, how she has been turned away so many times because her hijab makes her a target. Her Muslim friends have gone through similar situations, and their children are now finding it hard to make it in a world that continues to find new ways and reasons to treat them as less than human.
As we converse over the phone thousands of miles away, she tells me what the past 30 years have been – for her and her family.
“Our choices are taken from us, our ability to be ourselves is taken from us. I came to this country because I thought it symbolized freedom, but ever since I made that decision, I find that my life has been slowly taken from me. Liberties that others have don’t exist for me because of who I am, because of the way I choose to live and the religion I practice.
“It’s an impossible decision because the opportunities are severely limited for Muslim women who wear hijabs. I must choose between sacrificing my religious beliefs and being able to work to put food on the table. Them asking us to take our hijab’s off clearly shows that they don’t know anything about the Islamic faith and more than anything, it hinders our ability to practice our religion. Freedom of religion, freedoms that are basic human rights, rights that so many have fought for is not an option for us.”
When asked about her working situation, she tells me about her struggles to find a decent job:
“I came from Turkey when I was young, having married my husband who already lived here. At first, I used to work at a factory as jobs were limited for me. Not only was I covered which was an issue for many workplaces, but I didn’t know the language. I was struggling and, in those times, this factory was one of the only places who would hire people like me. Even they stopped hiring women who wore hijabs later. They would tell us we would need to remove it if we wanted to work.”
“This is still the case now in many places in France and across Europe. Islamophobia is rampant. They look at us like we are boogeymen, like we are despicable creatures. If I didn’t have to be here, if my family and my children weren’t here, I would leave this racist country. I would go back to Turkey or somewhere better, at least somewhere I would be treated as a human.
“You’re not allowed in government buildings to renew your passport or driver’s license with a hijab on. Schools are even worse as our children aren’t allowed to wear hijabs either if they want to and even worse, the teachers tell them that they can’t amount to anything more. They tell them that educating themselves is useless, that if their father is a contractor, that’s all they can amount to as well. They force our children into menial, low paying jobs telling them that they can’t make it as a doctor or lawyer or anything else.
“They want to keep us from having a full life and from accomplishing things, they want it to be difficult for us.”
“I’m glad you’re writing about this”, she tells me at the end of our phone call. “Everyone talks about freedom, freedom to live where you want, to be who you want, to practice any religion you want to. Religious coverings, clothing- it’s a choice at the end of the day. But freedom doesn’t exist for us Muslims, not in Europe. Not now, not ever.”
As we hang up, her words echo in my head. It’s 2021 and the world continues to evolve. We just got through a global pandemic, and yet freedom is still faltering in many ways and many people. Equality seems like an idea that exists in a theoretical plane. The High Court can kid itself all they want, but the truth is their ruling is not neutral, their ruling will continue to aid and abet in the restriction of these people’s freedoms. As they hide behind their legislation, their ruling will continue to hurt more people than they can imagine.
It is them calling out to the public: freedom is limited. Freedom for those who are different, doesn’t exist.