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Headscarf Bans At Work?

Posted on 15th March 2017

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I found this new report by the BBC, about an ECJ (European Court of Justice) ruling on workplace headscarf bans to be a little odd.

The court found that it is OK to ban religious symbols and clothing at the workplace, as long as the ban is applied equally to all religions, but not on the basis of "the wishes of a customer".

The issue of customer perceptions and wishes seems to me to be the strongest reason for companies to institute such a ban. The caveat specified by the ECJ does say "the preferences of an individual customer", but what if there are multiple customers with the same preference: would that be an adequate reason for a ban? How many customers are enough? Also, how does a company determine the collective wishes of its customers: do they have to do a survey? I am really not sure that this ruling sets a useful precedent.

Personally, I am not offended and do not feel threatened by people at work (colleagues or suppliers) wearing headscarves, yamakas, crucifixes, etc. I do not understand why some people are upset by such things.

I have worked with people of many religions, in many countries, and sometimes the religious expression in clothing. jewellery and behaviour can be quite "in your face". I worked in Prague with a British Jew who only ate kosher food (widely available in Prague, but rather dry and boring, I found), and who flew home to England every Friday; he had to leave very early on Friday in order to be in his house before sundown (which is when the Sabbath starts). I worked in Jakarta, where most people are Muslim: it is impossible to have meetings at certain times of day because people are at prayers; there were prayers at lunchtime in the office (on the first floor, but usually overflowing into the reception, meaning that I had to leave for lunch via a back door, and visitors arriving during prayers couldn't get into the building). I have worked with people wearing headscarves, yamakas, crucifixes, leather wristbands (a Hindu religious tradition). I have worked with Sikhs, who are supposed to carry their kirpan (technically a small ceremonial sword, actually a knife) at all times (a bit of a problem when travelling by air nowadays). None of this is a problem, as far as I am concerned.

What I am not so keen on is face-covering headgear such as the niqab (but even that I can live with, if necessary). I like to be able to see people's faces when I talk to them (to see the expressions, so that I know whether to believe them) and to recognise them.

A much bigger issue for me is people who want to explain their religion to other people (colleagues and customers), and try to convert them. There are some people who wear religious items as a way to open conversations about their religion; that is not a problem with the items, but with their behaviour, and I see no reason why this problem should be addressed by banning the clothing, jewellery, etc.

I think that, at root, the real issue is the modern trend for people to expect to be comfortable and safe: to not be challenged with ideas that do not match their world-view; to be addressed and referred to with their chosen gender-neutral pronoun; to hear only politically correct speech; to not need to think about, and reassess their opinions. Having to meet and deal with others wearing religious clothing, etc. is a challenge to the bouderaries of the isolated and safe world such people want to inhabit. I have a message for such people: welcome to planet earth!