he recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women is seen by many as a blanket ban on the hijab. In actual fact, it is not that, although that said, it is not easy to understand the reasoning behind the court’s order.
There were two orders passed by the ECJ simultaneously, seemingly giving contrary decisions. In the first case which happened in Belgium, the court ruled that a Belgian organisation was within its rights to sack a female Muslim employee who had taken up the hijab because the hijab was against the organisation’s rules regarding appearance in a role which required facing the public. The company claimed that it had an ‘image neutrality’ policy in furtherance of which it did not allow employees to wear any religious clothing or symbols if they held a job requiring dealing first hand with the general public. The court was of the opinion that this policy was followed by the company in a ‘consistent and systematic manner’.
Simultaneously, there was another ruling on a case that took place in France in which a woman had refused to take off her hijab after a client objected to her wearing it. The company then sacked the woman. In this instance, the court ruled that she had been discriminated against as the company had no "image neutrality" policy and only dismissed her following the client's complaint.
Now the fact of the matter is that EU laws prohibit companies, private or public, discriminating on the grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age etc. Indirect discrimination, which includes rules set by a company which may disadvantage a certain group, is also prohibited. That being the law, it is difficult to understand how an organisation, private or public, can be allowed to have a policy which would, in effect, discriminate against the beliefs of certain employees.
They say about some of Mirza Ghalib’s verses that when he wrote them, only God and he understood what he meant; later on, only God understood their meaning and the ruling of the ECJ seems to fall in the same category. If all it takes is for one organisation to have a policy against the hijab to make wearing of the hijab invalid, the law does not amount to very much.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by financier George Soros, which supported the two Muslim women involved in this case, said the ruling "weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU's anti-discrimination directive" and will "exclude many Muslim women from the workplace".
It may be pointed out here that the wearing of the hijab is already prohibited in France in public service jobs, even when employees are not in direct contact with the public. In Belgium, there are no federal rules on religious symbols at work, but the regional parliaments have prohibited religious, political or philosophical symbols for public service workers who deal with the public.
Rules such as these are down to individual members of the European Union to decide upon as they deem fit. The UK is a member of the EU at present but the hijab is not banned here in any shape or form as decisions of the ECJ on such subjects do not include other states.
But the UK will not be a member of the EU for much longer, with the government having announced that it will issue the notification under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty intimating its formal decision to leave the EU by March 29, which means that the UK will be out of the European Union by March 29, 2019. Not only that, but in all probability much before that date, it will be facing the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom with the leader of the Scottish National Party having announced the party’s decision, in no uncertain terms, to move for another referendum on the question of Scotland’s independence sometime between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019, i.e., at a time when the terms under which the UK will be leaving the European Union will have become clear before the UK having actually left the EU. The Scots argue that if at that point in time they feel that the terms of the divorce do not suit them, they can go their own way and seek to remain in the EU. Not quite so says the British Prime Minister Theresa May who has made it clear that the Scots will not be given their referendum (the move has to be sanctioned by the British Parliament) till after the Brexit negotiations have taken place.
This has raised questions about Britannia behaving as if she still rules the waves, something that was a part of its distant history. But as I have said repeatedly in these columns, old habits die hard, although the Scots seem to be in no mood to accept that sort of imperialistic treatment. The Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party has made it clear that the will of the Scottish Parliament should and shall prevail, all of which has the makings of a proper political ding-dong. But before that the British government will be facing some sharp surprises, none of them welcome ones, as negotiations open with the EU in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space.