When your boss forces you to choose between your job and your religion, it probably feels like discrimination. But Europe’s highest court has decided in a landmark case that this is actually perfectly “neutral”—if you’re a Muslim woman.
The European Union Court of Justice ruled last month that EU law permitted private employers to forbid the wearing of the hijab, or Muslim head covering, as long as it was part of a blanket regulation covering any religious, philosophical, or political symbol within a workplace—that is, the company is technically “neutral” in not singling out any particular identity group for the ban.
In a case involving multinational security firm G4S, the court upheld a prohibition on the hijab that had forced Samira Achbita to basically either keep her office job, which required no duties conflicting with her religious practice, or stop expressing her religion through her dress. In a parallel but contradictory ruling, however, the court opined that the France-based tech multinational Micropole could not dismiss a worker in response to a customer’s complaint. Design engineer Asma Bougnaoui had been permitted to wear her veil but her boss demanded she dress “neutrally” after the customer complained against being served by a Muslim. But the court upheld the employer’s policy only in the G4S case because it was an official preemptive rule, rather than a blatant reaction to a single customer’s expressed prejudice. To both women, the consequences were similar: economic disenfranchisement and alienation in a society where headwear has become a fashionable political battlefront.
Ruling on the eve of a critical Dutch election, which boosted the racist far-right Freedom Party, the court’s move in this political climate is raising concerns that the justice system has tipped rightward on anti-Muslim social attitudes, despite its duty to protect minority rights. Now, following the electoral surge of France’s anti-immigrant National Front, tensions surrounding the marginalization of Muslim communities is becoming even more acute.