Please don’t tell me what to wear

Please don’t tell me what to wear

I’m not Muslim. So what if I decided to wear a headscarf in work?

Earlier this week the ECJ, the highest court in the EU, ruled on two different cases concerning employees right to wear headscarves in work.

In one the court ruled that companies have the right to enforce a dress code that prohibits employees from wearing any visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs. That case involved a receptionist at a security firm in Belgium who began wearing a headscarf for religious reasons 3 years after she started working with the company. She refused to stop wearing it and they fired her. The court found that there was an unwritten policy within the company prohibiting employees from wearing overt symbols of their beliefs and that companies have a right to do this.

An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.

However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.
Court of Justice of the European Union

In the second case the court found that a design consultant who was dismissed by an IT consultancy firm after her headscarf “embarrassed” some customers may have been discriminated against.

I didn’t read these rulings as discriminating against Muslims because honestly my first impression was – well, if a company wants to enforce a dress policy … I guess they can? Then I watched this report on which points out at the beginning that for some Muslim women wearing a headscarf isn’t a symbol but rather a requirement of their religious beliefs, and a statistic pops up at some point that in Germany only 3% of applicants with CVs that include a photo of them in a headscarf gets called to interview. Which surprised me because Germany is a very liberal country.

What does it matter what material I surround myself with? Isn’t it what’s inside that counts?

So that started me thinking about it a little more and then I remembered that story about a receptionist in a financial company in the UK who claimed she was sent home on her first day because she wasn’t wearing heels. She set up a petition, she got some MPs’ backing and the agency she worked for ended up changing their policy.

If something makes you uncomfortable, like wearing heels, because it tenses up your calf muscles or bothers the tendons in your feet, or if it makes you more at ease to wear a hijab or a kippah because that’s what your religion requires, why should your employer be able to tell you what to wear? I can understand people being required to cover up while they’re at work – can you imagine having to work with a bunch of naturists? … in that case I’d be like … no, not having it, no. But I can’t really understand why somebody wearing an extra piece of clothing or wearing flats rather than heels should be a problem for anyone.

If I do my job well shouldn’t that be all that really matters? What do you care what I believe? I have an eclectic set of beliefs so you wouldn’t even know if I’m wearing something that I consider a religious symbol. Oh, so you’d only mind it if the piece of clothing identified me as belonging to a particular group? O.K. … nothing scary about that then…

Also, what if I’m wearing a headscarf but it’s not a symbol of anything? I’m just wearing it because … because that’s what I want to wear – maybe to shield myself from the sun, maybe to give me some added warmth, maybe I’m having hair issues – if I was wearing a headscarf at work for any of these reasons and I was fired when I refused to take off the headscarf would it be considered fair for the company to tell me what to wear in those situations? If not, then we need to ask ourselves why do we consider religion or indeed beliefs in general dangerous? If so, then are we giving companies a little too much say in how employees dress themselves?

me and a lemur
Me with a scarf wrapped around me for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with my head which seems to never fit into hats right. And a lemur.

OK clearly I’m not at work in that photo but I posted it here because I hate photos of myself, hate having my photo taken – I don’t mind that photo too much though – I think it’s the lemur effect – but I have also wondered since seeing that if maybe I should start wearing headscarves. I like them. I kinda wish they were in wider fashion. I might yet … Don’t know.

But my question is, if I do start wearing headscarves what happens if I work in a company with a unwritten policy that prohibits “the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs” and they say you have to stop wearing that headscarf and I say “No. It’s not a symbol of my religious beliefs. – My bra is though and I’m willing to take it off to make customers less embarrassed.” … the straps are visible at the shoulder – don’t over think it … “No? I can keep the bra on?” … “You’re sure now?” …”Alright so.” … “But you still want me to take the headscarf off?!? No!”

I have a lot of respect for the Court of Justice. Their rulings are really responsible for the creation and enforcement of the single market. They have exceeded the powers of a normal court in the past. It was their ruling in a case in the 1960s Costa v ENEL that held that member states couldn’t override community law through domestic legislation, so it was the court that gave EU law supremacy over national government’s legislation. But this isn’t a bad thing. This was necessary in order for the creation of a common market which eventually grew into the a free trade single market. We wouldn’t have the single market without these rulings. I’m pointing this out because I’ve been a bit bewildered at some of the comments made by some Brexiteers regarding the EU courts. The EU courts did give community law supremacy over domestic legislation but it was the member states themselves (our national governments), from the Maastricht treaty onwards, who have continued to increase the scope and extent of community powers. Actually I guess the Irish people also played a part because we’re the one country who have had to ratify all the treaties since the Single European Act in the late 80s by direct mandate… All I’m trying to say here is that while I don’t agree with the decision in this case I’m not against these courts – they’re not sinister and it’s crazy to suggest they are.

So, what can be done about this ruling? I don’t know I’m not a legal expert. But the European Court of Human Rights has ruled previously that an employee couldn’t be prevented from wearing a cross as it was her right to manifest her religion. The ECHR is part of the Council of Europe, a different entity to the EU but many European countries have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. So maybe the receptionist who was fired for refusing to stop wearing her hijab could take a case to ECHR?

The Lisbon Treaty has an article requiring the EU to accede to the convention but there have been issues with getting the ECJ to accept the legality of the accession – it might be the court jealously guarding its jurisdiction or it might be to do with the unique nature and composition of the union, or a bit of both. 

I guess it’s yet another thing to keep an eye on. Why can’t we all just chill out and be sweet to one another? Why do we get tied up in knots over nonsense like what people can and can’t wear?