IGOHR Views the European Union’s Ruling on Religious Symbols as Discriminatory Against Muslim Women and Against Religious Minority Groups in Europe

IGOHR Views the European Union’s Ruling on Religious Symbols as Discriminatory Against Muslim Women and Against Religious Minority Groups in Europe 11 April 2017


The International Organization for Human Rights (IGOHR) is alarmed and startled by the by the new ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that grants companies the right to ban employees from wearing any religious or political symbols in the workplace including the “hijab” – the headscarf worn by Muslim women. IGOHR considers this ruling as not only a discrimination against women preventing them to achieve their employability potentials but it’s equally a violation on the religious rights of all as enunciated in many international human rights laws and legal instruments. IGOHR further stresses that this ruling by the ECJ undermines important societal values such as tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.

On March 14th 2017, the highest court in the European Union (EU) -  European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg – passed a new unprecedented rule granting employers in the EU the possibility to ban staffs from “wearing any visible political, philosophical or religious signs” while performing their duties at work. The ruling stems from two cases handled by the court involving two Muslim women who charged their employers for dismissing them based on discrimination as they insisted on wearing their headscarves at work.

Although the European Court of Justice claims the new ruling does not constitute a “direct discrimination”, IGOHR dismisses such claim and believes that discrimination is discrimination whether it is direct or indirect. Hence IGOHR reiterates that the ban on wearing religious symbols in the workplace such as the hijab is a discrimination against women based on their religion which is unacceptable in line with several international laws such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. States parties should therefore provide information on the status of women as regards their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and indicate what steps they have taken or intend to take both to eliminate and prevent infringements of these freedoms in respect of women and to protect their right not to be discriminated against. By passing the new ruling, the EU and its Member States are not respecting their obligations under these human rights covenants. The new ruling will encourage many companies to discriminate against Muslim women who wear the hijab as a symbol of practicing their religion. Hence, it will make it increasingly difficult for Muslim women to get employment or to be treated equal in the workplace thereby hindering them to achieve their full potentials.

The International Organization for Human Rights views this ruling as a clear violation of people’s rights to religious freedom as articulated in various international conventions, human rights mechanisms and the EU regional laws on religious rights. The principal directives that mandates all nations to respect the religious freedom and beliefs of all individuals is Articles 18 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. In conformity with universal and European human rights standards the EU and its member States are committed to respecting, protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief within their borders through its regional and national laws. Thus, the new ruling by the ECJ is an infringement of individuals’ rights to exercise their freedom to practice their religion or beliefs in public through the wearing of religious symbols. It targets and discriminates against all religious garb from all faiths including the Sikh turban and a Jewish skullcap mostly worn by men, but it greatly disproportionate against Muslim women wearing “hijab” which is a symbol of modesty and privacy.

Additionally, IGOHR holds that the new ruling to ban religious signs such as the hijab in the workplace further threatens the diversity existing in many places in Europe and also weakens the significance of social values such as acceptance others, tolerance, mutual respect and understanding regardless of someone’s color, race, ethnic background or religion. The Court’s ruling comes at a time where the wearing of religious symbols such as hijab has become a hot political issue among nationalist and anti-Muslim parties across Europe.  Several countries — including France, Belgium, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands — have either passed laws that led to bans on full face-covering veils in public, or are considering legislation that would do so. Those laws are hurting many Muslim communities in these countries which aim to marginalize or exclude them from society and women are greatly affected. Thus, the new ruling will marginalize them even more. Thus, the EU’s principle of open-mindedness, coexistence of diverse groups on society, acceptance of others and respect of their ideas and beliefs irrespective of their ethnic background or religion will be totally void with the passing of this new ruling.

Therefore, IGOHR is calling on the ECJ to revoke the ruling granting employers the full right to ban the wearing of religious symbols on the job. The EU and its Members States should ensure that there are appropriate measures put in place to adequately and effectively prevent situations that may incite any form of discrimination – directly or indirectly – that affect many women or individuals from other vulnerable groups in the name of religion or beliefs. IGOHR also urges the EU and its Member States to continue to strengthen dialogue among and within religions or beliefs and businesses, at all levels and with a broader participation of women, to promote greater tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.