Top EU court allows employers to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at work- All you need to know


The Highest Court of the European Union on July 15, 2021, reaffirmed that the companies in Europe can forbid Muslim women from wearing headscarves to work under certain conditions. Headscarves are the visible symbol of political and religious beliefs.

The ruling by the top court has also led to widespread condemnation from the human rights activists as well as the Muslim nations appeasing Islamophobia.

The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out on the EU court’s ruling. A devout Muslim leading an Islamic-rooted party has always presented himself as an advocate of Muslims worldwide and has frequently defended the faith against Islamophobia.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin had later tweeted that the decision by the European Court of Justice on headscarves in the workplace is another blow to the rights of Muslim women with headscarves, and it will play right into the hands of those warmongers against Islam in Europe.

The ruling by the European Court of Justice was not limited to headscarves alone. It also applies to all the visible symbols of political and religious beliefs. The court in its ruling mentioned that the bloc’s 27 member states will have to justify whether there is a ‘genuine need’ on the part of the employer to ban these religious markers.

Ban on headscarves by EU Court: What led to the latest ruling?

The latest ruling by the EU court was based on the separate cases that were brought to the court by two German Muslim Women who were suspended from their jobs for wearing hijabs.

Both the women- one of whom was a cashier at the pharmacy and the other worked at a childcare center in Hamburg- were not wearing headscarves when they started working for their respective employees. However, they adopted hijabs after coming back from parental leave.

As per the court documents, both the women were told that donning the headscarves were not permitted

The court clarified that the company policies barring workers from wearing the ‘visible form of expression of philosophical, political or religious beliefs in the workplace did not qualify as the direct discrimination as long as the same rules are applied to the religious symbols and garb across faiths.

Employers need to show ‘genuine need’ for ban: EU Court

The European Court of Justice, in its ruling, laid down that the employers need to show a genuine need for the ban on headscarves- this can be the legitimate wishes of the customers, or to present a neutral image towards the customers or for preventing social disputes.

The court said that the justification by the employer must correspond to a genuine need and, in reconciling the rights and the interests at issue, the national courts must take into account the specific context of their Member State and in particular, more favourable national provisions on the protection of freedom of religion.

Is the debate on headscarves in Europe something new?

Even though the German court will finally have to decide whether the two women have been discriminated against, the headscarf debate in Europe far predates the latest ruling. A number of cases have been heard, a majority of which were filed by the applicants for the positions as teachers at public schools or judges at the court.

Across Europe, over the years, many courts have been able to impose restrictions on donning the religious symbols or garb in the workplace as well as public spaces like parks.

More recently, the controversial ‘anti-separatism bill’ by a French senate in April 2021, had spread widespread protests, with critics denouncing it for singling out Muslim Community.

The Senate, as part of its proposed initiatives to help promote secularism, sought to impose a ban on girls under 18 wearing hijab in public.

European countries where hijab is banned:

1. In 2004, France had prohibited the wearing of hijabs in state schools. Then, again in 2014, the top court of the country upheld the dismissal of a Muslim daycare worker for wearing a headscarf at a private school where religious neutrality was demanded from all of its employees.

2. Countries such as Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands have also passed laws that ban the full-face covering veils in public places. However, the hijab- which covers the head and the shoulders- is not included in these bans.

3. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in 2016, said that wearing full-face veils must be prohibited ‘wherever it is legally possible’.

How other countries have reacted to the headscarf ban?

Among the loudest voices opposing the latest ruling by the European Court are Turkey’s Cabinet Ministers.

It also prompted the spokesperson of the Turkish President to ask, “Does the concepts of religious freedom now exclude Muslims”?

The International NGO Human Rights Watch, in an article condemning the court’s ruling, pointed out that the argument rested on the flawed notion that a ‘client’s objections to employees wearing a religious dress can legitimately trump the employees’ rights’.

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