Ali Schofield unveils the truth beneath the headscarf ban

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What do you find offensive in the workplace? I bet you could reel off a long list. There are the obvious things: sexism, ageism, racism, right down to people who accept cups of tea while only ever making their own and frankly perverted sounding offers to “touch base”.

Of all the offensive things worthy of a workplace ban, headscarves are nowhere near the top of my list. They’re not even middling. In fact, I’d vouch it’s a pretty fascist standpoint you have there if they’re even at the very bottom of yours.

But it is headscarves that the European Court of Justice has just ruled can be legally banned in the workplace. It follows the trial brought by Samira Achbita, a secretary sacked by G4S in Belgium for wearing a hijab. She argued she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion. It does rather look like that, doesn’t it? But the court said “an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate”.

Since it started with the sacking of a Muslim woman, the ruling has widely been known as a headscarf ban but companies aren’t allowed to single headscarf-wearers out. In practice, to ban a garment employers’ policies must prohibit anyone wearing “any political, philosophical or religious sign”, in the name of neutrality.

Quite how neutrality is gained by making it impossible for religious people to feel welcome in their workplaces is not clear. Short of an employer providing everyone with exactly the same uniform, scripts, identikit haircuts and the like, no workforce will ever “project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers” and why would it want to? We’re all humans and we’re all different.

No, it’s not a headscarf ban. The headscarves I wore during chemo are fine. And it’s not just a religious symbols ban, despite the legislation necessarily including all religious symbols. It’s a Muslim ban by another name, but one that is even more exclusionary since its judgement has been focused squarely on women. Which is not, after all, a unique viewpoint.

Women of all religions and ethnicities expect to be judged for their looks, often outwardly by employee rules stipulating arbitrary heel heights and make-up specifics in workplaces where men can rightly hope to be judged only on their ability to do the job. But there is a special level of obsessive fussing reserved for the way Muslim women look.

One Muslim teen was recently banned from her school in France since her skirt was “too long”. It may have been the same length as many of her peers’ but a 2004 law banned all “ostentatious religious symbols” in French state schools. Because of course that’s what long skirts and headscarves become when they’re worn by Muslim women.

Interestingly this coincides with debates about a so-called hijab ban in basketball, which has forced many Muslim players to retire. The Swiss governing body FIBA is at pains to make it known the ban has no “religious connotation” but simply that hijabs are considered “equipment that may cause injury to other players”.

I guess this ruling gives it the nod to continue just the way it is. Heck, call it a ban on any political, philosophical or religious sign and you’re away, FIBA. With so many Western arguments against headscarves levelled at the perceived subjugation of Muslim women forced to dress a certain way, this ruling subjugates Muslim women in a way no small group of misogynists could ever have dreamed of.

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