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Banning headscarves is permissible but difficult to achieve

Nick Thorpe
15/03/2017
The European Court of Justice has ruled this week that companies can ban employees in customer facing roles from wearing the Islamic headscarf or 'hijab'.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled this week that companies can ban employees in customer facing roles from wearing the Islamic headscarf or 'hijab', but only as part of a general policy prohibiting the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious symbol.

The ruling concerned two cases, both about women who were dismissed by their employers for wearing the hijab. The case which has received the most publicity concerned a woman working as a receptionist for G4S, in which a general ban on religious or political symbols was held not to be directly discriminatory against Muslim women.  The ECJ acknowledged that the ban was potentially indirectly discriminatory but went on to suggest that such treatment could be justified.

But the other decision was less sympathetic to the employer. It involved an IT consultant who was told to remove her hijab after a client complained.  Here there was no general ban on wearing religious symbols and, therefore, the ECJ had to consider whether the dismissal was permitted by a genuine occupational requirement.  The court held that it was not and so it was potentially unlawful.

Together, the cases show that banning religious symbols is permissible but it is very difficult to achieve. In order to justify such treatment, there must be a general ban.  If an employer wishes to ban hijabs, then the same rule must also ban Jewish men from wearing kippahs, Sikh men from wearing turbans, or Christians from wearing crosses.  Such strict neutrality policies exist in specific industries in Continental Europe but are very rare in the UK.

Stefan Nerinckx, an Employment partner in our Brussels office, says, "I predict that some companies will put in place 'neutrality' policies in the next coming months, based on the conditions set out in this ruling. Others will seize the judgment as an opportunity to emphasise they are very diversity oriented."

For a more detailed analysis of the case, please click here.

As a European firm with offices across the continent, we are able to help you navigate legal issues and cultural sensitivities. To understand the full implications of this ruling on your business, in the UK and continental Europe, please do get in touch with your local contact.

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