The freedom of Muslim women to choose to wear hijab can feel like a step in the wrong direction for a lot of atheists.
The court had been called to rule on cases brought by two German Muslim women: a special needs childcare worker and a cashier working at a chemist’s.
Both were told to remove their hijabs when they returned to work after parental leave. Neither had worn the garments when they took up their jobs.
The childcare centre — which banned staff from wearing religious symbols of any kind, including the Christian cross and the Jewish kippah – suspended the woman on two occasions. It also gave her a written warning which she contested through the German courts.
The chemist’s told its employee she could not wear conspicuous political, philosophical or religious signs. She refused and sued her employer on the grounds her head covering was an obligation under her religion.
The ECJ had to decide in both cases whether the ban on headscarves in the workplace constituted a violation of freedom of religion or whether it was justified as part of freedom to conduct a business.
Specifically, they were deciding whether a ban on any visible expression of politics, philosophy or religion “may be justified by the employer’s [genuine] need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes.”
The word “neutral” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. It’s one thing for an employee to wear a shirt with a political statement on it if that’s taken to be an act of persuasion or if it might create a distraction. But that’s just not the case when it involves a head covering that’s part of someone’s faith. I don’t think that “presenting a neutral image towards customers” is a grave enough reason to rob someone of her freedom to express her religious identity. A hijab doesn’t actively harm people. Full stop. If a patron interacting with a Muslim woman is offended by the piece of fabric on her head, then that is the patron’s problem, not the Muslim woman’s.
And yet the EU Court said such a ban, as long as it was applied to everyone in general, was permissible.
Following the hijab ban in France this past spring, this is just another instance of European lawmakers using the guise of secularism to discriminate and strip women of their religious rights. Whatever criticisms atheists may have of religious expressions and whatever debates there may be about whether a Muslim woman truly has a choice to wear a particular covering are irrelevant here; it’s not our place or our choice. It’s theirs. Part of a woman’s right to control her own body is choosing how she wants to dress. Telling her what she can’t wear is hardly different from telling her what she must do. It’s hard to argue that an employer is suffering in any meaningful way because a Muslim woman wears a hijab at work.
Secular Humanists should push back against these hijab bans every time we see them. It’s not hypocritical to defend women who reject those head coverings, or even making the case for why others should rip off their veils, while supporting the rights of women who want to wear them. Standing with women means defending their freedom to practice a religion that we don’t necessarily agree with.
(Image via Shutterstock)