Old Problem, New Lexicon: The EU Workplace Headscarf Ban

Old Problem, New Lexicon: The EU Workplace Headscarf Ban

Saba Hussain and Nazia Hussein

Recently the media across Europe has reported the legalisation of a workplace headscarf ban by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in two cases where Muslim women were fired for their practice of hijab (modesty) with a headscarf. The ECJ has rejected these women’s claims of religious discrimination by saying ‘An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination’. It further ruled that a company’s wish to project a ‘neutral image’ was legitimate and upheld internal rules banning political, philosophical or religious symbols.

This new ruling by the ECJ needs to be read in conjunction with a series of national legislations in France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland, beginning with the ban on Islamic headscarf in public primary and secondary schools and the ban on constructing new minarets. The ECJ ruling is not a blanket ban on headscarves, rather a ruling in favour of companies whose existing policy upholds ‘image neutrality’ which can disproportionately affect Muslim women in European workplaces. It underlines a contradiction between arguments that Muslim women’s lack of economic participation is a sign of their subordinate status in Islam and discriminatory workforce practices in the ‘secular’ West.

Muslim women’s headscarves have been identified as a marker of their ‘self-segregation’ and resistance to assimilation in various European countries including in the UK. Headscarves are also seen as a visible proof of women’s subordination within patriarchal Islam, and, as such, a hallmark of the incompatibility of Islam with European ‘modernity’ based on capitalist ‘secular’ values that uphold equality. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, described the practice of headscarves as a ‘marker of separation’ of the Muslim community.

The ECJ ruling adds to the existing policies of ‘community cohesion’ and assimilation based on the reinforcement of hierarchies between communities. Overall, it legitimises the discourses of Islamophobia created by the Western media and politicians. Narrated in the language of the secularism of state, assimilation and group identity, the discourse on Muslim women and veiling in Europe has paid scant attention to affective dimension of corporeal practices leading to complex entanglements of gender, culture, religion and citizenship in Europe. We contend that the discourses around Muslim women within the headscarf debate in Europe, and more generally, needs a new lexicon centred on Muslim women’s social status in the West and issues of gendered control over women’s body and aesthetic labour in the workplace. The addition of this new lexicon will enable us to shift attention away from counter-productive identity model of recognition that aims to assimilate ‘timeless’ immutable difference through multiculturalism, to a status model that aspires to establish subordinate groups as ‘full partners in social interaction’ (Fraser 2000: 113).

A focus on how bodies are classified and disciplined at workplaces will challenge the assumption that women in Western countries have achieved gender equality and highlight the structural constraints women continue to face in their workplaces. While the theorization around status produces an institutional account of Muslim women’s marginalization in Europe, the theorization around bodies at workplaces provides an intimate picture of marginalization processes in work organizations that focuses on the gender and ethnicity of the worker providing macro and micro-level analysis of the ECJ ruling.

Nancy Fraser’s main concern is that current forms of identity politics are reifying group identity and displacing matters of distributive justice. The problem according to Fraser (2008) arises from a ‘hypostatising’ of culture that abstracts it from its institutional matrix and its entwinement with distributive injustice. So, when debates around the ECJ ruling focus on the issue of Muslim ‘cultural’ assimilation, glossing over empirical concerns Muslim women’s marginalisation in the workforce it leads to what Fraser has called a ‘problem of displacement’. This overt focus on culture tends to reify identity i.e. the ‘problem of reification’ that places upon members of subordinate groups (Muslim women in this case) who claim recognition, a requirement ‘to elaborate and display an authentic, self-affirming and self-generated collective identity’ in a way that individual members are forced to conform to a narrowly perceived group culture (Fraser 2000: 112).

Many well-meaning critiques of the recent ECJ ruling reify the so-called ‘Muslim’ culture and the emphasis it places upon the women’s sartorial choices, forcing Muslim women to inhabit a ‘fixed’ Muslim femininity. By making the ECJ ruling an issue about Muslim women, as opposed to an issue about women’s lack of control over their body and equal access to work this type of a public discourse reinforces an immutable image of the ‘veiled’ Muslim women. The overall effect is the imposition of a single, drastically simplified group-identity denying the complexity of people’s lives, the multiplicity of identifications and affiliations (Fraser 2000).

From a non-identarian perspective, what requires recognition is not group-specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction. Misrecognition is being denied the status of a full partner in social interaction through institutionalized patterns of cultural value (Fraser 2000: 113). So the question is: how can veiled Muslim women be recognised as full members in European workplaces and the society at large? Through strategies of transformation recognition or deconstruction. Recognition of this sort will require contemporary European societies to grapple with their historic legacies of colonialism and contemporary geopolitics around the movement of people and citizenship formation in the West.   In doing so, these societies will begin to deconstruct the structure of cultural valuation which devalues Muslim women as the ‘other’. These processes of deconstruction will also be able to challenge binary notions of tradition- modernity, religious- secular etc. to develop more multi-faceted and complex accounts of people’s lives that cannot be captured through binaries.

From a gender and work perspective, the headscarf ban needs to be read in relation to the recent incidents of a receptionist in London being sent home for not wearing high heels, women asked to wear shorter skirts and unbutton blouses, and of dress codes detailing nail varnish shade and hair root colour. Women, regardless of their religion and culture, are forced by managements to comply with organizational aesthetic labour whereby management extracts value from a worker’s embodied qualities. If the argument against Islam’s patriarchal culture of headscarf and face veiling is that it denies women independence and rights to their bodies, which is against the values of ‘modern’ Western gender equality, then how are the Western organizations mentioned above any different?

Discourses of fashion, consumer culture, decency and Islam all articulate women’s sartorial choices as connected to their sexuality and lack of agency. ‘Western modernity’ is defined by its neoliberal culture. Foucauldian approach to neoliberalism is read as ‘mentality of the government’ (Rose 1992: 145) whereby governments and their capitalist partners, such as businesses, exert authority over their citizens. Feminist politics has long been flagging systematic structural constraints which limit ‘choice’, ‘individual freedom’ and ‘rights’ of women workers. The principal question is: What are these gendered workplace policies saying about ‘Western neoliberal modernity’? That women workers in neoliberal workplaces, regardless of their religion, are seen as objects rather than actors.

By introducing a lexicon around recognition and gendered control, we make the case for the emergence of a new progressive critique of the ECJ’s headscarf ban that must go beyond issues of tolerance to Muslim culture or assimilation. Instead the new critique must flag religious and ethnic biases in ideals of freedom, choice and gender equality central to imagination of the liberal Western societies. The progressive project must not be about Muslim women’s right to veil, but about all women’s rights to their bodies and to be seen and heard in public places.

Fraser, Nancy. 2000. Rethinking Recognition, New Left Review, May/June, pp.107–20.
Fraser, Nancy. 2008. Introduction in Olson, K. (Ed) Adding insult to injury: Nancy Fraser debates her critics. London: Verso.
Rose, Nicholas. 1992. Governing the enterprising self. In: Morris P and Heelas P (eds) The Values of the Enterprise Culture: The Moral Debate. London: Routledge.


Saba Hussain is a Lecturer in Sociology at Bath Spa University. Her research and teaching interests are around Muslim Girlhoods, Gender and Education, and post-globalisation identity formation. Nazia Hussein is a Teaching Fellow in Sociology at London School of Economics. Her research interests are in the area of gender, race, ethnicity and religion.