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Gulf Today Report
Companies can ban women employees from wearing a headscarf (hijab) under certain conditions, the Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice (CJEU) said on Thursday in a ruling on cases brought by two Muslim women in Germany who were suspended from their jobs for wearing one.
The issue of the headscarf has been divisive across the EU countires for years, underlining sharp differences over integrating Muslims.
Hijab bans for female staff at work have been contentious in Germany for many years, mostly with regard to aspiring teachers at public schools and trainee judges.
In the cases brought to the CJEU, a special-needs carer at a childcare centre in Hamburg run by a charitable association and a cashier at the Mueller drugstore chain did not wear hijabs (the traditional headscarf worn around the head and shoulders) when they started their jobs, but decided to do so years later after returning from parental leave.
The two Muslim ladies were told this was not allowed, and at different points were suspended, were asked to come to work without headscarf or put on a different job, showed the EU court documents.
The CJEU had to decide whether headscarf bans at work represented a violation of the freedom of religion or were allowed as part of the freedom to conduct a business and the wish to project an image of neutrality to customers. According to the court ruling such bans were possible if justified by an employer's need to present a neutral image.
The court further said that a prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, religious or philosophical beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the owner's need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes.
The court in it ruling said "that justification must correspond to a genuine need on the part of the employer" In his view, this reason must meet the actual needs of the employer. In the case of the nursing centre staff, the CJEU said the rule at issue appeared to have been applied in a general and undifferentiated way, as the owner also required an employee wearing a religious cross to remove that sign.
In both cases, it will now be up to national courts to have the final say on whether there was any discrimination. As early as 2017, the EU court ruled that companies may prohibit employees from wearing headscarves and other visible religious symbols under certain conditions, upsetting faith groups.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations philanthropic organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, said it was concerned the ruling "may continue to exclude many Muslim women, and those of other religious minorities, from various jobs in Europe. Employers should tread carefully as "they risk being found liable for discrimination ... if they can't demonstrate a genuine need for a religious dress ban," one of its representatives, Maryam H'madoun, said in a statement.
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