Europe’s hijab ruling: Why it’s not easy being told what to wear

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

It’s not easy being told what to wear.

Children often struggle with their school uniforms and likewise, when adults are given dress codes they often try to break the rules and personalise their outfits.

But while being told that flimsy footwear isn’t safe in the workplace is one thing, imagine if a dress code extended to the things you wear as part of your faith?

The European Union’s top law court recently ruled that employers are entitled to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols – a decision some have said is a direct attack on women wearing hijabs at work.

The European Court of Justice said it does not constitute ‘direct discrimination’ if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of ‘any political, philosophical or religious sign.’

The court gave a judgement in the cases of two women, in Belgium and France, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their hijabs.

But why all the fuss? Does it really matter what a person is wearing so long as they are performing their duties well?

The topic caused controversy when it was discussed on UK television recently. British businesswoman and TV star Saira Khan clashed with ‘Good Morning Britain’ host Piers Morgan as she defended individual businesses’ rights to stop their employees wearing veils and other religious clothing.

However, it seems there aren’t many people who feel as fired up as Khan.

Indeed Karl Smith, who is non-religious and used to dressing the part for his role as a paralegal at a law firm says he’s baffled by the new ruling. After all, why should anyone care?

“I have worked alongside a diverse workforce including women who choose to wear a hijab for ten years now. While I am aware that certain items of clothing are symbols of religion, it has never bothered me. Why should it? I have grown up in a generation of diversity and been fortunate enough to have visited different countries and revelled in other cultures,” he explains.

“To me the hijab is simply a piece of clothing and should not be banned in the work place. Similarly, I would not expect a corporate employer to ban a man for the wearing of the turban, or a nun on work premises who chooses to wear a coif. No religious symbols should be banned.

"I would not be offended at the sight of a fellow employee wearing a Christian cross, Jewish Star of David or an Islamic star and crescent. It leads us down a dark path when a so called free and western society which has welcomed decades of multiculturalism and integration suddenly tries to reserve this by banning clothing which is part and parcel of a person’s cultural heritage. Like it or not, Western Europe is diverse and it would be more effective to focus on good education and effective integration as opposed to segregation and singling out women for their choice of headwear.”

American/Palestinian stay at home mum Saffiya, lives in Dubai and says she would be unable to work if a hijab ban was enforced.

She says: “This ruling scares me because if anything happened to my husband and I had to suddenly support my family then my backup plan of using my education to support myself would go through the window. This would take away a Muslim woman’s independence because it would mean I had to rely on my brothers or father to support me financially. Removing my hijab is not an option. I would rather die than remove it. It’s a reflection of my submission to God and I would not cut that tie if my life depended on it.”

UK-based journalist Zinah Akbar echoes Saffiya’s sentiments.

She says: “What I wear has absolutely no impact on my capabilities of doing a job. I’d understand if it was a safety issue - no flipflops on a building site etc - but wearing a hijab does not stop me from doing anything else. If my bosses had issues with me wearing the hijab I would have to seriously consider my future with the company. My faith is not negotiable and no job means that much that I would compromise it over clothing.”

When you’re serving the public, image is all important. But that should only extend as far as smartness, says restaurateur Elizabeth Dowd. The owner of popular food spot Dowds Panaderia in Derbyshire, UK, says she would never stop somebody wearing a hijab or other item of clothing.

She says: “I wouldn’t expect a member of my staff to be told they couldn’t wear what they wanted especially if it was for their religion. All I expect from my staff is to look presentable and if this included wearing a hijab or any other religious clothing I would expect that.”

At the end of the day, could the issue be about more than what works in an office, questions Middle East-based stylist and designer Ushi Sato. Despite working in the fashion industry, Ushi says even he realises the clothes a person wears bear no relevance on how well they perform a job.

He says: “For me as employer, what my employee wears isn’t an issue. It shouldn't be a top priority in a work field. Companies should prioritise employee’s rights and welfare more than anything and realise there's a lot of people who are good looking and wearing the clothes the employer may want them to but they don't deliver jobs accordingly.”

Ushi shares the concern of many that the attack of religious clothing is intended to target those wearing Islamic clothing and believes more should be done to promote tolerance and understanding.

He adds: “I've worked with employees from different cultures and religious backgrounds and I haven't experienced trouble with their performance because of their traditional clothing. I think the main reason this issue is occurring is because people in the west see Middle Eastern people as a threat because of how some media portray them which is very wrong.”

Top Content Trending