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On Labor, Language And Headscarves

Woman wearing an Islamic veil in Paris
Woman wearing an Islamic veil in Paris
Jillian Deutsch

-Analysis-

Most talk of the "changing nature of work" focuses on the shift to freelance labor, the fracturing of traditional office culture and the entitlement of pesky millennials entering the workforce. But the established workplace — wherever it may be — is still here, and there are plenty of new tensions that have nothing to do with Uber sick leave or other twists in the so-called "gig economy."

Yesterday, the European Union's Court of Justice (EJC) ruled that employers can ban the traditional hijab Muslim headscarf from the workplace. The case came after a Belgian woman was fired in 2006 when she began wearing her hijab to work. The Luxembourg-based court ruled, however, that customers or clients cannot demand a worker remove the veil after a related case in France.

Interviewed by Le Monde, Sophie Gherardi, director for the Center for Contemporary Religious Studies, noted that the decision merely provides the national courts with guidance. "The decisions of the ECJ are very nuanced" depending on the country's view of religion in the workplace. After all, the French conception of secularism (laïcité), a longstanding legal pillar, considers public religious symbols taboo. Meanwhile, Gherardi explains, individual religious protections are much stronger in Germany.

How do you say: "Look out, bulldozer coming!" in French?

But it's an interesting time for the court to take up the subject, as nationalist and right-wing politicians are gaining traction across Europe (including the Netherlands, which is holding national elections today), and questions of religious freedom intersect with concerns about immigration. The latest figures showed that in 2014, some 3.8 million people immigrated to one of the 28 European Union countries, according to the European Commission. About 1.6 million have come from non-EU countries.

The hijab-in-the-workplace issue is not brand new in Europe. Many have implemented or proposed at least some kind of ban on the Islamic veil. But it's not the only policy a government has put into effect that has been criticized for being indirectly discriminatory.

The Île-de-France region created its own controversy earlier this month after including the "Molière clause" in a new law to require public works contracts are awarded to companies whose employees speak French.

The region says it adopted the policy for safety reasons (How do you say: "Look out, bulldozer coming!" in French?). But others accuse the policy of intentionally discriminating against foreign workers. Ahead of France's own national elections, next week's first televised debate can expect some lively discussion on the Molière clause — and on Muslim headscarves too.

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