The European Union’s top court has ruled Muslim employees could be banned from wearing headscarves.
Two cases were brought by Muslim women in Germany who were suspended from their jobs for wearing a hijab to work.
One woman was a carer for special needs children at a childcare provider in Hamburg, while the other woman worked at a cashier at the Mueller drugstore chain. Neither of the women wore headscarves when they began their jobs but decided to start doing so years later.
Court documents show the women were told that this was not allowed and they were at different points either suspended, told to come to work without it.
The EU court in Luxembourg had to decide in both cases whether headscarf bans at work represented a violation of the freedom of religion or were allowed as part of the freedom to conduct a business and the wish to project an image of so-called neutrality to customers.
Its response was that such bans were possible if justified by an employer’s need to present a “neutral image”.
The court said: “A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes.”
But the justification must be linked to a genuine need on the part of the employer, the court said.
Shaista Aziz, an anti-racism and women’s rights campaigner, argued the EU court’s ruling is symptomatic of wider issues of racism and sexism.
“Europe’s obsession with Muslim women’s clothing choices and specifically the hijab is entwined with Islamophobia, racism and misogyny,” Ms Aziz told The Independent.
“While European the continent grapples with Covid, rising levels of inequalities and social injustice – why is it that the hijab and Muslim women are the focus of politicians? These politicians are fuelling the far right and rampant anti-Muslim hate and Islamophobia.”
It will now be down to national courts to have the final say on whether there was any discrimination in both cases which came before the EU’s top court.
Maryam H’madoun, of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “Laws, policies and practices prohibiting religious dress are targeted manifestations of Islamophobia that seek to exclude Muslim women from public life or render them invisible.
“Discrimination masquerading as ‘neutrality’ is the veil that actually needs to be lifted. A rule that expects every person to have the same outward appearance is not neutral. It deliberately discriminates against people because they are visibly religious.
“Courts across Europe and the UN Human Rights Committee have emphasised that the wearing of a headscarf does not cause any form of harm that would give rise to a ‘genuine need’ by an employer to implement such practices.”
She warned such policies stigmatise women in “racial, ethnic, and religious minorities” and thereby potentially trigger increasing numbers of hate crimes and acts of violence. Measures can also compound pre-existing patterns of racism, xenophobia and ethnic inequalities, Ms H’madoun added.
She said: “Employers who implement these policies and practices should tread carefully, as they risk being found liable for discrimination under both European and national laws if they can’t demonstrate a genuine need for a religious dress ban.”
The EU court already ruled in 2017 that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions – provoking a backlash among faith groups at the time.
More than five million Muslims live in Germany, making them the largest religious minority group there.
In 2014, France’s top court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim daycare worker for wearing a headscarf at a private creche. While France, which is home to the largest Muslim community in Europe, barred the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.
Additional reporting by Reuters