Instead of integrating people of color, or refugees, or immigrants, the EU’s workplace hijab ban will allow those people to stay even more in the sidelines.
Last week, the European Union took an unprecedented step and allowed employers to ban “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign.” The decision was celebrated by nationalist and anti-immigrant groups across Europe. For the Muslims in Europe, this first and foremost implies a hijab ban, since the headscarf worn by so many Muslim women is the most visible religious sign today.
The European Union isn’t the first to get the idea to ban the hijab. France has bitterly fought its Muslim population (the largest in Europe) by banning the face veil (niqab) since 2011, and a more recent burkini ban on French beaches.
Germany had a similar ban on head coverings starting in 2003, which was only reversed amid public pressure in 2015. All across Europe, there is a wave of white nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, which has resulted in negative political rhetoric, and now, harsh public policy. So let’s break down the EU ruling to see how much it really affects people.
The first ruling applies to a Dutch firm, which fired a Muslim receptionist for wearing the hijab in contradiction of the company’s rulings against wearing religious symbols while dealing with customers. A similar case was decided for a French company, leading to the worry that this will embolden corporations and other powerful entities to discriminate based on religion.
Interestingly, similar cases in the U.S. have been decided in favor of the employees, such as the famous Abercrombie and Fitch employee who was fired for wearing the hijab. That case in 2013 became a beacon of hope and a symbol of religious tolerance in our country, sending a strong message that employers could not discriminate based on religious symbols or clothing.
There are many reasons why rulings such as the ones by the EU are harmful on an individual, as well as a societal, level. First, it affects the employees themselves, who are now under pressure to not only perform their duties but also alter their personal beliefs and characteristics to keep their jobs.
1. Muslim Women are Being Targeted.
Even though Europeans applauding the EU decisions deny that any one particular group will be targeted by this decision, effectively this is what it really does: it singles out Muslim women who are by far the largest group wearing identifiable religious symbols, such as the hijab. With growing populations of Muslim women in European countries, forcing them to comply with arbitrary rules regarding dress will end up marginalizing them even more.
Germany’s experiment with the headscarf ban in schools proved that Muslim girls did not leave off their scarves as was hoped, but rather stopped coming to school instead. The same will occur in the workplace, where women who want to work, be independent and self-sufficient will have to choose between faith and employment. Policies like these therefore harm the very groups they are pretending to help.
2. Diversity is Punished Instead of Celebrated.
Whether in Europe or North America, diversity is a concept that can no longer be ignored or swept under the rug like an unacceptable truth. We are increasingly a mixture of races, ethnicities and religions because of mass migration, war displacement and inter-relationships. Those who fear this trend towards diversity welcome the EU decision, because they secretly hope that the world they live in will go back to being non-diverse.
Sadly, this attitude ends up harming all of us and the societies we live in, because they tend to push away marginalized groups even more. Instead of integrating people of color, or refugees, or immigrants, the EU decisions will allow those people to stay even more in the sidelines. This will result in a perpetuation of the fear and anti-immigrant rhetoric that steeps Europe today. To welcome “the other” we need to get to know them, work with them, make friends with them. This cannot happen unless companies allow “the other” to work in their offices, study in their schools and enjoy public facilities like everyone else
3. All Faiths are Threatened.
Even though Muslims are the main targets of the EU decision, the fact remains that when one faith group is threatened, all groups suffer. First, from an implementation context, not only the hijab but also other obvious religious clothing, such as the Jewish kippah and the Sikh turban, are included in the ruling. But on a larger subject, these rulings also send a powerful message that religion is unwanted, undesired and unacceptable in public spaces.
This is especially true for those who belong to minority faith groups: an anti-faith sentiment rises in these nations, as evidenced by increasing hate crimes against people of a demonstrable faith, such as women in hijab or Sikhs in turbans. A sort of poison spreads into our communities as a result of rulings like the EU’s, because they tell the majority that it has more power and therefor more acceptability than the minority groups.
People in many countries — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — have protested the EU decisions, understanding that these are not the last word in rising anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe. But those protesting must be much more vocal and much more insistent in protecting religious liberty for all of us.
Featured image by Andrea de Poda. Creative commons license.