Faith groups and thousands of women say EU court order allowing firms to ban employees from wearing headscarf under certain conditions pushes for "businesses to adopt Islamophobic hiring practices."

Court ruling allows employers to ban women from wearing the hijab at work if companies
Court ruling allows employers to ban women from wearing the hijab at work if companies "need to present a neutral image towards customers." (Getty Images)

Faith groups, anti-discrimination activists and thousands of women have strongly criticised a ruling by EU's top court that said companies in the region can ban employees from wearing a headscarf under certain conditions, if they need to do so to project an image of neutrality to customers.

"As a basis for its decision, the court makes a limping comparison, which in practice only applies to Muslim women as the headscarf is an integral part of Muslim practice," Bekir Altas, head of the Germany-based Turkish-Muslim association IGMG, said in a statement on Friday. 

"Those who wear it – unlike a piece of jewellery – cannot take it off for reasons of their faith, so only [Muslim women] are forced to make a decision over their faith or work. This is constitutionally not tenable," he argued.

"An environment in which minorities cannot flourish freely for fear of oppression and exclusion is never compatible with a liberal democratic order."

The Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations philanthropic organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, said it was concerned the ruling "may continue to exclude many Muslim women, and those of other religious minorities, from various jobs in Europe."

Employers should tread carefully as "they risk being found liable for discrimination ... if they can't demonstrate a genuine need for a religious dress ban," one of its representatives, Maryam Hmadoun, said in a statement.

"Another example of how Islamophobia is perpetuated right at the top, this decision will only further marginalise Muslim women, creating further inequality and divisions in society. The court's ruling is anything but just," said Zara Mohammed of Muslim Council of Britain.

Muslim Association of Britain said the ruling will allow "businesses to adopt Islamophobic hiring practices."

"Another example of Muslim women being told what they can and cannot wear. This time, the EU's highest court decides to allow businesses to adopt Islamophobic hiring practices and it is sickening," it said.

"Enough with this continuous discrimination and policing of Muslim women."

What does the court ruling say?

The court ruling in principle allows employers to ban women from wearing the hijab at work if companies "need to present a neutral image towards customers."

"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," said the court.

The court also said that any ban must correspond to a "genuine need" and that it will now be up to national court to verify it.

The EU's top court was ruling on two cases brought by Muslim women who were suspended from their jobs in Germany for wearing the headscarf.

The court had to decide 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 neutrality to customers.

The EU court had already ruled in 2017 that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions.

READ MORE: France allows girls to consent to sex at 15, but bans hijab until 18

Putting profit before equality

Headscarf bans for women at work have been contentious in Germany for years, mostly with regard to aspiring teachers at state schools and trainee judges.

Elsewhere in Europe, courts have also had to look into where and how headscarves can sometimes be banned at work.

France's top court upheld in 2014 the dismissal of a Muslim day care worker for wearing a headscarf at a private creche that demanded strict neutrality from employees. 

France, home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004.

Austria's constitutional court has ruled that a law there banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory. 

Concerned citizens and citizens' groups also took to Twitter to criticise the decision.

"Giving legal protection to private employers to pursue 'an image of neutrality' puts profit that panders to prejudice above people’s right to be free from discrimination," said Equinox, a pan-European racial justice advocacy movement group.

"This reinforces Islamophobia in an already hostile EU."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies