“This week’s decision by the European court of justice to allow the hijab to be banned in the workplace is yet another sign of the continent’s obsession with how Muslim women dress.
The ruling states that the hijab can be banned only as part of a policy barring all religious and political symbols – and so framed in a way that doesn’t directly target Muslim women. Indeed, the Conference of European Rabbis was outraged, saying that the ruling sent a clear message that Europe’s faith communities were no longer welcome – and a number of religious communities, including Sikhs, will be affected.
However, there’s no doubt that Muslims are the main group in the line of fire. That’s why far-right groups across the continent were so delighted with it. “Of course companies have to be allowed to ban the wearing of headscarves,” said Georg Pazderski, of Germany’s hardline Alternative für Deutschland. “Even the ECJ votes Marine [le Pen],” tweeted the French MP Gilbert Collard, a Front National supporter.”
Freedom is about choice. Religious freedom is about having the choice of how one expresses one’s faith, as long as it is not against public order. One may be annoyed at seeing a woman wearing a hijab, as some were annoyed in generations past at seeing a nun in religious habit, or more recently at seeing a young face covered with body piercings. One may consider that wearing a hijab is a submissive act which runs contrary to the modern emancipation of women. But what counts here is the choice of the person whose freedom one wants to restrict: such restriction needs a strong justification in each individual case. The fact that others may be annoyed by someone’s ideas, faith or fashion statements does not give license to silence that person, as long as the expression of such ideas, faith or fashion statements does not violate the rights of others : this is the essence of freedom and this is what the law should protect and how courts should interpret freedom, including freedom of expression, of conscience and of religion. The fact that people are annoyed by the abstract idea of women wearing hijabs and fantasise about its multiple potential social meanings should not give license to prohibit the perfectly innocuous act of this individual woman choosing for herself to wear a scarf on religious grounds. Who can honestly argue that a small piece of cloth disturbs public order?
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