Banning Headscarves is Bad for Business
17 March 2017 at 3:08 pm
Barring headscarves in the workplace would be bad for business, according to Diversity Council Australia speaking in the wake of a landmark ruling by the EU’s highest court allowing companies in Europe to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols.
In its first decision on the issue of women wearing headscarves at work, the European Court of Justice (EJC) ruled the garments could be banned, but only as part of a general policy prohibiting “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign”.
The ruling, which also said an employer could not ask workers to remove such symbols at the request of a customer if a policy was not already in place, was sparked by the cases of two women, in France and Belgium, who were both fired for refusing to remove their headscarves.
Diversity Council Australia chief executive officer Lisa Annese told Pro Bono News the move was tied up with a rise in Islamophobia.
“I don’t believe that this situation would have happened if we were just referring to Christians wearing chains with crosses on them,” Annese said.
“I don’t think that has ever been a problem. I think it is intrinsically linked with Islam and Muslim people.”
She said the significance of the decision would play out in terms of whether or not workplaces choose to impose a ban.
“I can’t think of any legitimate reason why a workplace would want to impose this,” Annese said.
“I think that workplaces that are committed to diversity and inclusion will not go down the path of imposing it and I think it would be bad for them to do so.”
She said it was a question of basic feminist principles.
“I have an aversion to the idea that anyone should be able to tell women what to wear,” she said.
“So regardless of what that item of clothing is, I think that that’s a basic feminist principle, that women should be able to wear what they like, unless you’ve got a really valid reason.
“And in workplaces the only valid reasons upon which clothing needs to be modified is if there are occupational health and safety risks. So sometimes in extreme examples, if you are working in a kitchen, or on a building site, you need to make sure you’re wearing clothing that doesn’t create more danger and more hazards.”
She said workplaces choosing to ban headscarves would be sending the wrong message.
“Once workplaces create policies around what is and what isn’t acceptable, the idea is that you change behaviour and we’ve seen this with policies that have tried to change behaviour around workplace harassment and discrimination,” she said.
“I mean the first step for organisations is to have really robust policies based on law, and legal decisions and the reason organisations do that is so they can change behaviour, and demonstrate to employees what is and what is not acceptable.
“So if an organisation created a policy that limited a woman’s capacity to wear a headscarf, then that’s pretty extreme and it sends a message that the organisation is not tolerant of people’s freedom to express their religion in a way that means something to them.
“And that will filter through the organisation and for people who are already intolerant it will probably vindicate their position. And for people who oppose it, it might create conflicted feelings and they may feel less engaged with the organisation.”
The latest ruling has come under fire from groups across Europe who argue the decision that the two employers did not break EU anti-discrimination law could shut many Muslim women out of the workforce.
John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program, said the “disappointing rulings” gave “greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women – and men – on the grounds of religious belief”.
“At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less,” Dalhuisen said.
“The court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice.
“It is now for national governments to step up and protect the rights of their citizens.”
But Annese said she would be “very surprised” if Australia went down the same path.
“We have a very successful model of multiculturalism and all of the employers who are members of the Diversity Council, I could verify hand on heart that they would all reject something that is so divisive,” she said.
“I’m not suggesting that there wouldn’t be people in Australia who would support it, we know that there are, but I would be very surprised if something like this would be implemented in Australia.
“The interesting thing is in countries that have put bans on what women can wear, so the burqa was banned in France and Belgium many years ago, it hasn’t had an impact on their threat levels with regards to terrorism, so I think that’s very telling.
“If what they are trying to achieve is a reduction in the terror threat then they are barking up the wrong tree because it doesn’t work.”