By Eugenia Relaño: Woman and Muslim, double discrimination

Workers with headscarf in a company of Lleida HERMINIA SIRVENT

Eugenia Relaño Pastor

One of the fundamental principles of European construction is equality. It underlies two values that qualify a society as democratic: human dignity and personal autonomy. Respect for human dignity means recognizing all individuals the same value regardless of their sexual orientation, race, religion or disability. And ensuring that anyone has personal autonomy means that he is able to plan his life and choose freely among all possible options. To deny a woman access to employment and professional development because she carries a headscarf not only compromises the means to earn a living and realize her potential, but places her in the dilemma of working or discreetly leaving her dignity aside the doors of work. Let’s not forget that when an employer signs an employment contract with a worker, he buys his time but not his soul.


The first two rulings on religious discrimination in the history of the Court of Justice of the European Union will no longer be a journalistic anecdote but instead become a “legal justification” for one more (of many) discriminations towards Muslim women. In one case, the Belgian Court of Cassation asked the highest court in Europe to rule on whether the ban on wearing an Islamic headscarf, which arises from a general internal rule of a private company, constitutes direct discrimination. Achbita, a Muslim believer, hired as a receptionist by the company G4S, expressed her intention to wear a veil at work. After being informed that she would not be allowed to use it because it would damage the image of religious neutrality of the company before the clients, and after persisting in her will to wear it, Mrs. Achbita was fired from the company. The Court has held that the G4S internal rule is intended to the use visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs. Thus, neutrality of clothing is imposed in an undifferentiated manner on all workers, so that there is no difference of treatment based directly on religion.

However, it could indirectly affect some workers (men wearing kippa or veiled women), then it would have to be proved that this internal standard has a legitimate purpose. And the Court concludes that a neutral image before the customers is a desire linked to the freedom of enterprise and, therefore, legitimate. In the second case, Mrs. Bougnaoui was hired by Micropole as a project engineer after a practice period in which she wore the headscarf. After the complaint of a client by Mrs. Bougnaoui’s headscarf, she was asked to stop wearing it and when she refused, she was fired.

The glass ceiling for many women in Europe has become one of concrete for Muslim women.

The French Court of Cassation asked the Court whether the willingness of an employer to take account of a client’s wishes that the services of that employer should not be provided by a worker female wearing an Islamic headscarf may be regarded as an “essential occupational requirement and determinant” that can be demandable to any employee. The Court concludes that the requirement to a project engineering not to wear headscarf at the meetings with its clients is not a professional requirement. That is, a professional requirement would require certain physical abilities to access the fire department or a black skin color to play the role of Nelson Mandela in a film.

What is in conflict is the right to profess and manifest a religion and freedom of enterprise. The business interest can be established in a certain corporate image, for example, through uniforms. Many businessmen and the same administration have accommodated visible religious signs to uniforms such as the Scottish or Canadian police, or British Airways. However, in the litigations quoted here there was no effort to accommodate the manifestation of the religious identity of both women. Under the protection of alleged undifferentiated neutrality, they have been discriminated against for religious reasons. Following this logic we would have to accept that an employer imposed a “sexual neutrality” prohibiting any manifestation of gender identity (ear-rings) or a “racial neutrality” (no workers with curly hair).

This discriminatory and prejudiced reasoning is aggravated when the Court admits that veiled women can be transferred to another job without visual contact with clients. In both cases, the garment covering the head left the face and eyes exposed, so,  would the Court also support an employer to move a black or homosexual worker to another job because it is understood that they could not behave correctly with the customers or to please the clientele? It would be pernicious that in order to protect the business interest, it would yield to the wishes of customers. Dispensing the employer of the duty to comply with equality of treatment to satisfy a desire of the clientele that may be based on prejudicies is to invite the phobias – xenophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, etc. – to govern our workplace, permeate and, In short, poison our democracies.

It can also be very poisonous to compromise the moral and legal authority of the highest European judicial body, which is responsible for ensuring the fundamental values ​​of the European Union, such as pluralism, non-discrimination, justice and solidarity. Normalizing prejudices opens the door to discrimination and Islamophobia. The latest data from the Eurobarometer on discrimination show that religious discrimination is the category that has increased the most compared to previous years and that the most affected group was Muslim women (only 3% of German employers selected curriculums of veiled applicants, and In the Netherlands 90% of victims of Islamophobic incidents in 2015 were Muslim women). It is time to remind the European Court of Justice that there is no economic integration without social cohesion and that the elimination of structural discrimination is one of the Union’s objectives. The glass ceiling for many women in Europe has become one of concrete for Muslim women. Let’s not throw any more cement on it.

*Eugenia Relaño Pastor is a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

To read the COMPLETE article in SPANISH CLICK HERE. It was published in newspaper ELPAIS