Hijabs in the Workplace: To Wear or Not to Wear?

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Islam requires that women wear modest clothing. Muslim women must not wear clothes that reveal body shape and may wear a hijab (a veil covering the hair), long sleeves, an ankle-length skirt, a niqab (veil covering the head and face with a slit for the eyes) or a burqa (cloak covering head, body and legs with a slit for the eyes).

One of the most frequent sources of conflict stemming from the determination of female Muslim employees to practice and manifest mandatory and discretionary religious behavior in the workplace is the wearing of the hijab.

In 2002, a court ordered American Airlines to pay $60,000 compensation and hire a Muslim plaintiff whom it had rejected for a ticket agent job because of her commitment to wearing a hijab.

In 2005, UPS Toronto fired eight Muslim women because their dress (ankle-length skirts, hijabs and neck scarves) posed a risk hazard as the women had to climb six-meter ladders, navigate open metal staircases and place boxes on a conveyor belt. The women argued that Islam required them to be fully covered for modesty and alleged discrimination on the basis of religion and gender.

They filed a complaint against UPS at the Canadian Human Rights tribunal and the matter was settled in 2008. The agreement did not specify if UPS policy was discrimination or a legitimate safety concern. The women did not return to work at UPS (one may conclude they received financial compensation from the company).

In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit on behalf of a female Muslim who had applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Tulsa but who was not hired because she wore a black hijab, which clashed with the Abercrombie & Fitch east coast collegiate dress code. She was awarded $20,000 compensation.

The federal appeals court in Denver threw out the award, ruling that Abercrombie & Fitch could not be held liable because the applicant never asked the company to relax its policy against hijabs. The EEOC then took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that the applicant was not required to make a specific request for the religious accommodation in view of the fact that she had worn a hijab to the interview. Abercrombie & Fitch then changed its policy on hijabs.

In 2009, a Muslim police officer in Philadelphia was denied her request to wear a hijab on duty. She wore it anyway and received a disciplinary suspension. When she sued, the court ruled in favor of the police department, arguing that a uniformed police officer is different to a civilian employee and must maintain a neutral appearance.

In June 2009, French IT services company Micropole Univers fired a female Muslim employee when she refused to remove her hijab following a complaint from a client, Groupama Insurance, where she was working on an assignment. She filed a suit for unfair dismissal and religious discrimination at the labor tribunal. The company was ordered to pay her €8,378 in severance pay, but her request to be reinstated was rejected.

She then took the case to the Supreme Court, which referred it to the European Court of Justice in April 2015. Rulings of the European Court of Justice are binding on the 28 member states of the European Union, in the same way that US Supreme Court rulings are binding on the 50 states of the USA.

While this case is still pending, ECJ Advocate General Juliane Kokott just issued an opinion in an identical case that suggests Europe’s premier court may come down on the side of the employer, unlike in the U.S., where rulings on this issue tend to favor the employee.

Samira Achbita was a receptionist at G4S Security Solutions in Belgium who was contracted out to Atlas Copco, a G4S client. Shortly after beginning the assignment, she started wearing a hijab.  G4S prohibits employees from wearing religious garb on the job and Achbita was fired.

Together with the Belgian Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, she sued the company and the Belgian Supreme Court referred the case to the ECJ for an opinion as to whether “the prohibition on wearing, as a female Muslim, a headscarf at the workplace does not constitute direct discrimination where the employer’s rule prohibits all employees from wearing outward signs of political, philosophical and religious beliefs at the workplace.”

In the opinion issued on June 1, Kokott wrote that upon entering an employer’s premises, an employee may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion. G4S should be free to enforce religious neutrality in the workplace, but it must have a legitimate reason and apply the rule to all religions.

Kokott’s opinion is not a verdict, but the court often follows the opinion of the Advocate General. The rulings in the Micropole Univers and G4S cases are likely to be landmark decisions, setting precedents for this issue in European Union member states.

What is your opinion about wearing a hijab in the workplace? What about any overt religious symbol? Write to us at [email protected]



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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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